Metro Vancouver mayors pull out stops to convince residents to adopt transit tax

VANCOUVER – Vancouver-area mayors are offering up a solution to gridlock as they quest for more transit funding in what has become a problem for big cities across the country.

A coalition of all but three of Metro Vancouver’s top politicians launched its campaign Monday to persuade British Columbia’s most populous region to adopt a new 0.5 per cent tax that would be harmonized with the provincial sales tax.

Voting Yes would set in motion the ongoing collection of funding for $7.5-billion in upgrades for more buses, extending a subway line, building new light rail and replacing a bridge. A refusal to pass the plebiscite, the mayors contend, would set the stage for a series of economic and environmental consequences.

“There’s really one key question that people need to ask themselves when they get the referendum ballot,” Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson told reporters at the province’s busiest transportation hub, Waterfront Station.

“How does Metro Vancouver grow by one million people and still remain livable?”

Congestion already costs the region $1 billion annually in lost productivity, lost time and its carbon footprint — and that will double over the next 30 years, said Linda Hepner, mayor of the rapidly developing city to the southeast, Surrey, B.C.

The mayors project some 600,000 new jobs will also cram at least as many more cars onto the roads, unless their alternative is made reality. Plan B would be keeping the status quo, said Greg Moore, mayor of Port Coquitlam.

“Which means no new money, it means added gridlock.”

Transit will be top of the agenda for Robertson and Hepner when they head to Toronto on Feb. 5 for the Big City Mayors’ Summit. Robertson said the gathering will strategize to coax financial promises from the government in the lead up to the federal election.

That funding is required along with provincial money to get the major pieces of the project built.

“Our needs reflect a fast-growing city and many cities across Canada are in the same situation,” he said.

The political stakes will be high as the referendum plays out over the coming weeks, said transportation expert Gordon Price, who described it as an confidence vote on the leadership of an entire region.

A No vote could also set back the environmental movement, which looks to Vancouver as one of the greenest municipalities on the planet, he added.

“If Vancouver can’t do it? My god,” said Price, who is the director of The City Program at Simon Fraser University.

“The damage that will do, not just to our reputation but to the people who are trying to fight these battles elsewhere.”

Opinion on how to vote is split right down the middle for SFU student Eva Habib and several of her peers, who just started a research project on public transit.

“The most obvious thing to do is to vote Yes, because we know the system we want will be in place,” she said.

“But at the same time, for people to take a stand against politicians and the way their policies are running, then voting No is the option because it will force them to find a different way.”

The No campaign has been spearheaded by the B.C. wing of The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, saying TransLink, the corporation that operates the transit system, is wasteful

The mayors’ council has avoided including the TransLink logo on campaign posters, and the mayors distanced their plan from criticism of the corporation.

Residents will receive ballots in the mail beginning March 16 and have a deadline of May 29 to submit their vote.

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