Metro Vancouver’s plebiscite on transit funding has resulted in 62 per cent of voters saying “no” to a sales tax hike. Associate Professor Werner Antweiler of UBC’s Sauder School of Business discusses why the vote failed, and what we can expect to happen now.
Why did the referendum fail?
The provincial government pursued a risky strategy by putting this to a vote; it’s often difficult to convince people that investments today yield enough benefits tomorrow. For many voters, the benefits are not sufficiently tangible. Voters in Langley – who overwhelmingly voted No – see fewer benefits from improved public transit than voters in the City of Vancouver.
The province didn’t want to risk another fiasco like the HST by bringing in an unpopular tax increase, so they skirted the issue and passed the buck to the mayors, who struggled to find a funding solution everyone could agree to. The mayors just didn’t have enough time and resources to convince a mostly apathetic public that this tax was needed. Where transit plebiscites have succeeded elsewhere, support was built up over long time frames and with strong leadership.
Marketing could have been much better. How can one expect people to vote in favour of something if they have seen and heard little about it? Advertisement is expensive, but essential. The Yes side needed to make the case more clearly and show the public what would happen if congestion gets worse and we don’t invest in more infrastructure.
And the No campaign had an easy job – all they had to say was that it’s another tax grab, and who likes taxes? They also capitalized on widespread complaints about inefficiencies in TransLink.
Where are we headed now?
The province doesn’t have a plan B, although a plan B is urgently needed. With a growing population, the need to expand public transit and other transportation infrastructure will not go away. The provincial government passed the buck to the mayors and the voters, and the voters have now passed the buck back to Victoria. If the provincial government could find the funds to build a bridge replacement of the Massey Tunnel without voter approval, why can’t they find the funds for other infrastructure projects in Metro Vancouver as well?
Could anything else be done?
The mayors have two cards left to play: property taxes and a vehicle levy. But the mayors are limited in how much they can increase property taxes, and Premier Christy Clark has been opposed to a vehicle levy. But now both options will have to be back on the agenda.
They could also create an entirely new revenue source: development charges. Ideally, they should be varied by type of property (residential, commercial, industrial), and by neighbourhood location and density. They should be higher in low-density neighbourhoods in order to curtail urban sprawl and encourage more efficient patterns of development.
But alone, none of those will be enough; to reach the level of funding this region needs, there will need to be a combination of new or increased revenue sources. And to get there, we’ll need to see more leadership – especially from the provincial government.