Metro Vancouver voters will not be able to reject any and all new taxes or fees for TransLink in a referendum promised by the BC Liberals, according to the transportation minister.
Mary Polak, speaking at an SFU election forum on transportation issues Thursday night, said voters would have to choose from between perhaps “three or four options” to deliver new funding so TransLink can expand.
In an interview later, Polak confirmed “none-of-the-above” will not be an option.
“They’ll be able to select what their preferred option would be,” she said. “We don’t envision it as a kind of thumbs up, thumb down. This is more about if you are going to pay more for transit, how best to do that?”
It’s a significant re-framing of the party’s promise, which was widely interpreted as giving voters an outright veto on paying anything more for TransLink.
Several Metro mayors denounced the referendum plan earlier in the week, predicting the electorate would block any new funding and set back the push for new transit lines by a decade.
Polak said the referendum would only be on short-term revenue sources, such as a vehicle levy or other tools that could be put in place quickly to deal with a shortfall the tranportation authority will face in 2015 when it exhausts its reserves.
A more complex proposal like comprehensive road pricing would not be included in the vote because it’s a longer-term tool requiring more extensive study and debate.
Polak said the short-term options going to the vote in November 2014 are unlikely to be individual sources, but rather combinations of them.
And they’d be crafted after extensive consultation with the public and the mayors.
NDP transportation critic Harry Bains said the public vote is still not a good idea, even if more cash for TransLink by some mechanism is a mandatory outcome.
“There’s no other way to describe it other than shirking your responsibility to make a decision,” Bains said.
He called it a “delaying tactic” that means fast-growing Surrey alone will have 30,000 more residents by the time the referendum is over.
“Residents south of the Fraser are being treated as second-class citizens,” Bains said, adding Surrey-area residents have funded transit upgrades elsewhere for too long while getting little in return.
NDP transportation critic Harry Bains and B.C. Green Party leader Jane Sterk at SFU forum. Jeff Nagel photo
SFU transportation forum hears questions on faregates, road pricing
Thursday night’s forum in Vancouver heard four provincial party representatives spar over transportation policy before nearly 300 observers.
B.C. Green Party leader Jane Sterk backed the use of strategies like pay parking, road pricing and congestion pricing to raise money while spurring motorists to drive less.
But she said it must be done in parallel with improved transit and other speakers echoed that view.
Sterk said transit must take centre stage ahead of freeway expansion projects.
“What I hear over and over again is roads and bridges, roads and bridges,” Sterk said. “That’s old thinking.”
Polak cautioned policies designed solely to punish drivers – suggested by some in the audience – won’t fly in areas like Langley where transit is too inconvenient.
“To try to tell communities south of the Fraser that thou shalt do what people in Vancouver want you to do doesn’t go over very well,” she said. “You do not catch as many flies with vinegar as you do with honey.”
B.C. Conservative representative Duane Nickull, running in Vancouver-Point Grey, said the extra lane of Highway 1 being built to the Fraser Valley perhaps should have carried high-speed electric rail instead.
He said the Conservatives oppose road tolls unless there’s a reasonable alternative, and noted his party’s pledge for a tax credit on tolls and ferry fares would give frequent local users a break while making tourists and visitors pay full price.
Polak was the only speaker to defend the spending of $100 million on fare gates at SkyTrain stations, predicting it will be a wise investment in the long run.
She said she believes fare evasion on transit is higher than official estimates.
Bains noted TransLink’s internal study found no business case for faregates before they were mandated by the province, but said he hopes they make the system safer.
Nickull said he can’t see how turnstiles were a higher priority than urgent needs like removing asbestos from schools.
Candidates were asked whether a new TransLink board should consist of representatives directly elected from each sub-region and tasked only with transportation, rather than have mayors or councillors selected from Metro Vancouver.
Polak said it’s definitely one option, but added it might still be a challenge getting those reps to “behave regionally and not parochially.”
She suggested there would still be a professional board to oversee day-to-day decisions.
Bains said the province is to blame for the “dysfunctional relationship” with local mayors due to years of “finger-pointing” from Victoria.
He called the current TransLink structure a “flawed, undemocratic process with no transparency.”