In April, during the election campaign she was expected to lose, B.C. Liberal Premier Christy Clark announced that she would hold a referendum on transit funding in Greater Vancouver. The announcement did not attract much attention at the time, as most did not think she would have the chance to follow through.

After her surprise election victory, both Clark and rookie Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Todd Stone have repeated the commitment to hold a vote in conjunction with, or before, the November 2014 municipal elections.

While votes on transit funding are common in the U.S., Switzerland and other countries, the practice is almost unheard of in Canada. Some observers are fearful that the provincial Liberals may create a question and process designed to produce a no vote, to starve the transit system while continuing with a massive freeway expansion program. Two massive freeway projects are presently under construction, the South Fraser Perimeter Road and the Highway 1/Port Mann Bridge expansion. And the Liberals are planning another connected freeway expansion to replace the Massey Tunnel between Richmond and Delta to facilitate increased traffic and to allow larger ships including oil tankers and coal ships to get into the Fraser River.

The date for the referendum has not been set, and neither has the question. So transit supporters are scrambling to organize, and learn from the experiences of other countries, with the knowledge that the vote could be held as early as February 2014.

A complication in the referendum is TransLink’s strange governance structure which was imposed by the former Liberal Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon and former Premier Gordon Campbell. It may be difficult to win a referendum to increase local taxes or fees for transit without some local control.

The structure, with a board appointed by Liberal-friendly groups selected by cabinet, allows the provincial government to deny all responsibility for TransLink decisions. But at the same time, the Minister and cabinet are able to make all the major decisions — even to the extent of micro-managing the controversial contract to install fare gates at rapid transit stations. Local governments in Metro Vancouver only get to decide whether to fund the plans decided on by the provincial government’s appointed board, and the only funding source available to the mayors is property tax increases.

In a June interview with the Surrey Leader, Minister Stone promised TransLink governance reform in the spring 2014 legislative session to give local government more say over TransLink decisions. The Minister was not made available for interview, but a ministry spokesperson stated by email that the details of governance reform are “still being worked out by government and the Mayors’ Council” and that the public would learn about the changes once this process is complete.

In a phone interview with rabble.ca, NDP TransLink Critic George Heyman said the Liberals “broke the TransLink governance system” when they eliminated local government control and imposed an appointed board. He also noted that the Liberals have recently offered the Mayors’ Council two token seats on the TransLink Board and suggested that the Liberals’ legislation might just entrench this meaningless change rather that returning any meaningful control of TransLink to local governments. Heyman also blasted the service cuts and delay in transit improvements caused by the Liberals’ refusal to honour a 2011 funding agreement with the Mayors Council, saying that the further delay caused by the referendum would irrevocably shift the region towards automobile dependency.

The transit service cuts are deepest at the edges of the transit system, in Surrey and Delta, but they extend even to bus routes in the City of Vancouver and off-peak SkyTrain service.

An unintended, and positive consequence of the upcoming referendum could be an increased level of organization on transit issues in Greater Vancouver, and even across Canada. In the U.S., where transportation funding referendums are common, there are several national coalitions with hundreds of member organizations working to promote transit. In contrast Canada has no national transit coalition and the groups dedicated to promoting transit are so small and underfunded as to be almost insignificant. The most significant organization presently promoting transit in Canada may be the Wilderness Committee, which has one climate campaigner who does transportation work off the side of their desk.

In the U.S., major environmental groups including the Sierra Club USA have well established campaigns opposing spending on roadway expansion and supporting increased spending on transit and other low-carbon transportation. Many U.S. groups have adopted the slogan ‘fix it first’ to campaign for an end to wasteful spending on wider roads while transit services are cut and existing roads and other infrastructure crumble from lack of maintenance and repair.

GetOnBoard BC is a new, and presently small, coalition of groups supporting increased funding for transit in Metro Vancouver and across BC, including re-allocating funds from road expansion to transit. The referendum has spurred the growth of the coalition, and hopefully it will become a major and long term force.

Fighting and winning the referendum is important, but transit will never get the attention and funding it needs without solid organizations with a long-term vision. Canada needs both local and national organizations to fight for better transit. While GetOnBoard is so far a small fledgling organization, Vancouver has seen small groups grow and become influential before, including Greenpeace.

Vancouver is the largest city in North America without a downtown freeway, and is influential globally in urban development and transportation planning. What we do is seen and sometimes imitated across Canada and in other countries including the U.S., India and China.

Organizing to win the upcoming transit referendum, and building a long-lasting transit coalition, could have a positive impact across Canada and around the world. Given the importance of carbon emissions from transportation, this local fight should not be left to a few local organizations.


Eric Doherty is a Vancouver-based transportation planner and writer who represents the Vancouver–Burnaby Chapter of the Council of Canadians on the GetOnBoard BC coalition. He is a co-author of the CCPA/Wilderness Committee report Transportation Transformation. Find him on Twitter @Eric_Doherty

Photo: Roland Tanglao / flickr