Metro Vancouver Transit “Plebiscite”: first thought (*)

December 18, 2014

The mayor issued a referendum question draft on December 11th, 2014, and one will find an account of it on the Stephen Rees’s blog. On December 18th 2014, the Province issued its “tweaked version“, to be mailed on March 16th 2015.

left: Ballot proposed by the Mayors council - right: version "amended" by the Province

left: Ballot proposed by the Mayors council – right: version “amended” by the Province

It appears that skeptic people on the outcome of the said referendum could be right: The Province reworded the referendum:

  • Out is the PST, in is a new whole tax which could be as different to the PST as the PST is to the GST. The exact wording is
    A new Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax would be applied
    as a 0.5% sales tax on the majority of goods and services that are subject to the Provincial Sales Tax and are sold or delivered in the region

It is not hard to fathom that the car dealer will escape to the “Congestion Improvement Tax”, the gas station probably too…

Anyway, it looks to open a whole new can of worm generating ever more red tape (and damaging the main argument in favor of the sale tax: equal on a broad tax base)…That is not good!

The name of the tax: “Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax”

Do transit investments “improve” congestion?

That is a meme repeated ad nausea: I am not sure people sitting in their cars on Oak bridge share this view.

Let’s dispel the myth: Transit investments never “improved” congestion, and will not magically start to do it tomorrow. they improve mobility choice, and people movement (allowing the economy to continue to growth): that is already a lot, but cars and trucks will still sit in traffic as they do right now.

The tax is certainly misnamed: the only known way to reduce congestion is road pricing.

LRT vs Skytrain?

With the referendum, we could have thought the very nasty debate on technology choice as behind us: Not at all! The Province clearly re opened it:

I had previously noticed many cautious words from the Province such as “The Province will contribute on transit project on a case by case basis, provided a strong business case exists”. When comes transit in Surrey, a recent joint study MOTI/Translink reads:

    The BRT and RRT [skytrain]-based alternatives were most cost-effective overall in achieving the project objectives due to greater relative benefits (RRT) or lower costs (BRT). LRT 1 and LRT 4 [chosen by the mayors] performed the worst in this account, due to higher costs and minimal benefits, respectively”

Today the Province changed not only the tax but the wording of the suggested investments:

  • Out is the Surrey LRT. In is an unspecified “Rapid Transit” link,
  • For good measure, same apply to Vancouver (but here there is a strong business case for a subway)
  • …Number of B lines becomes unspecified too..

Suddenly, lot of clarity, on what we gonna pay and what we gonna get for the money, has disappeared…that doesn’t bode well either.

Referendum vs Plebiscite?

Curiously enough, the referendum is replaced by a plebiscite: the words could be interchangeable..or not. An apparently accepted definition (pretty much as worded by Prime Minister Mc Kenzie in 1942) is:

    “The plebiscite is an expression of opinion by the people on a general course of action proposed by the government. The vote is not legally binding on the government, although there may be a political and a moral obligation to respect the result.”

It doesn’t matter the viewpoint, you see only vagueness on every aspect of the renamed “Transit plebiscite”: That is not necessarily the good recipe to get the “Yes” vote “out”.

On another hand, the Mayors council doesn’t need a referendum/plebiscite to increase the Translink property tax, so it is not like if it was no “plan B” to finance Transit in the region.

(*) I had in fact first posted them as a comment on the Price tag and Frances Bula’s blog


7 Responses to “Metro Vancouver Transit “Plebiscite”: first thought (*)”

  1. Excellent analysis. I agree with your point about congestion relief, so it is disingenuous of the Province to mention it in the actual question. I appreciate the vagaries of “rapid transit” on certain routes, as RRT is a better choice than LRT for Surrey, but certain omissions (lack of specific numbers of B Line routes, omissions of “earthquake ready” Patullo bridge and pedestrian “safety”) are unfortunate.

    The most alarming change is that the assurance of independent audits and public reporting, is removed from the ballot question, relegated to the fine text (where most people will overlook it). This will do little to placate the popular though misplaced fear that Translink will be irresponsible and unaccountable in how they spend the funds raised from this program.

  2. mezzanine Says:

    If anything, I also like the “intentional vagueness” in the question. Again it unfetters the ability for RRT to be built to surrey/langley. Nice pickup on the word plebicite – IMO the province realizes transit is important to to regional economy but wants to duck the question of funding. If the vote does go down, it allows the province a “plan b”

    I could be wrong, but we’ll see in 2015..

  3. Stephen Rees Says:

    Traffic expands and contracts to fill the space available – in the absence of road pricing. Every car trip removed from the network by someone deciding to take the new transit service is quickly replaced by a new car trip. When the Yonge subway on Toronto opened, traffic on Yonge Street increased – as there were no longer streetcars getting in the way of the – mostly single occupant – cars.

    Congestion is actually a reasonable way to measure the economic success of a city. Lots of empty roads means no-one wants to go there.

    One typo to correct – replace “bold” with “bode” in the phrase “that doesn’t bold well either”

  4. A Says:

    The largest change in language that caught me off-guard was the removal of a commitment to matching funds from the Province and Federal govn’t. What’s the chance that the vote passes, yet the Province balks on providing all (or some) of their matching contribution leaving the vision partially un-funded? TransLink will become the punching bag yet again for being “incapable of managing public funds”.
    I hate being the conspiracy theorist, but some of the language changes make it look like the Province is trying to make this unpalatable.

  5. Voony Says:

    On the removal of the “commitment” of matching funds from the Province and Federal

    that is fair enough: The mayors can’t decently commit how someone-else money should be spent.

    That is also a caveat of the plan: Some money couldn’t materialize: what gonna happen in those case?

    On the “intentional vagueness” on technology choice.
    I am also not convinced of some choices, but on another hand
    a- choices need to be done beforehand to estimate the cost of the plan,
    b- and to make clearly palatable to people what they gonna get.

    That said, the Mayors plan reads “The City of Vancouver will be responsible for the incremental cost associated with any additional tunneling beyond where technically or functionally required[…].”

    While that is probably the right thing to do, it could be appreciated that such is also asked to Surrey:

    It is my opinion that Surrey is entitled to have a say on the transit form planned there but it should also pay for the “incremental cost associated to choice beyond where technically or functionally required:”

    Surrey should foot the bill between the optimal choice (BRT) and their (LRT)

    On the assurance of independent audits and public reporting
    Thanks for notice that, I didn’t but after a second look, I also noticed that “will” has been replaced by “would” 😉

    Anyway, I think all that part is nothing more than window dressing.

    All the tax revenue will go to Translink, and it will be subject to the same auditing mechanism as it is now:

    All the reviewing/auditing mechanism is codified in the SCBCTA act

    Translink is already subject to an annual financial audit (Translink choose the auditor: not sure that qualifies for “independent”) and must make its annual report public.
    In term of independent review, it seems the best you can do is to ask to the Province to do an “independent review/audit” once every 3 years.

    (it looks that part was better covered by the “independent” Translink commissioner appointed by the Mayors, before June 2014)

    Mayors could still decide an “annual independent review” on their own (with which money?), but Translink could not be forced by law to open its books to the mayor’s auditor.
    We better understand why the “will” became “would” 😉

  6. […] Firt striking point: both plans estimate exactly same revenue for both the gas tax and parking tax. That is an implicit recognition that the Expansion plan will have no traffic impact, and per extension congestion impact (or if it does, it is mainly by the introduction of the Pattullo bridge): some thing we have already mentioned before. […]

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