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Mayors, premier led us into transit purgatory

Our communities are held hostage by this demoralizing and exhausting political game.

Typical lineup at crowded UBC campus bus loop
Typical lineup at crowded UBC campus bus loop.

After nearly two years preparing and engaging in the #TransitReferendum, we are back exactly where we started: the purgatory of transit stasis. We are stuck, it seems, in the depths of a civic molasses; a never-ending debate that persists like a chronic disease, weighing ever heavily on our collective mental health.

Could it be that TransLink has become our own local Senate? An institution we all purportedly love to hate that our elected leadership cannot seem to improve or change?

The truth is, of course not. TransLink, this referendum, and indeed the whole issue of insufficient transit is the result of real decisions that are made by real people in positions of real power. This intractable dilemma has been created and could easily be undone if our leaders chose to take action. But they don’t.

So if you’re looking for somebody to blame, or better yet, somebody to figure out where we go from here, you need only look to the three so-called leaders that are holding us all, and the future of our community, hostage by continuing this demoralizing and exhaustive political game.

The mayors

For over five years, the mayors have stubbornly refused to expand transit through property-tax funding. They believe that property taxes are simply too high and demanded the province okay a new source of funding for transit. After bandying around a laundry list of taxes and fees, only last December did they finally declare that the new source be a regional sales tax.

The province has always wanted the mayors to use the property tax, just as it has been used for the past decade for additional transit funding, but relented through the referendum process. If the people approved the new funding mechanism, the province would allow it. The people have given a resounding ‘No’ to the new sales tax. There will be no new funding source now — only the property tax.

If the mayors want to expand transit, as they should and as they must, they already can. Approve a property-tax increase.

The premier

Premier Christy Clark knows her role. She is the leader of a government that serves 4.4 million people across 162 municipalities. The demands of the Lower Mainland must be tempered and balanced with the priorities of the other half of British Columbians. She knows that her majority was not secured by the urban voters of Vancouver, but by the farmers and labourers of rural B.C. The referendum was both a grapevine to the mayors and a strategic deflection of engaging in what she believes to be a local issue.

Transit, and indeed the future of urban B.C., is not on the premier’s agenda. If it were, she could have solved these issues a long time ago. Just look east to Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne of Ontario, who is investing tens of billions of dollars in transit infrastructure. Or, even closer to home, at the newly installed NDP government of Alberta’s Rachel Notley. With a swipe of the pen, Premier Notley has reinstated hundreds of millions in funding to keep schools and hospitals running and expanding to meet demand. When premiers have agendas they are committed to achieving, they get it done.

For Premier Clark, urban B.C. simply doesn’t matter. Whether it’s schools, hospital, or transit, the BC Liberals aren’t there for you. If you want a provincial government that cares about these issues, don’t re-elect Christy Clark. Better yet, join an opposition party and help them get organized and able to legitimately contest the Liberals in the next election.

The lobbyist

The ‘No’ campaign didn’t start this January; it began in 2011 when Jordan Bateman, a former pro-transit councillor from the Township of Langley, took over as the B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a right-wing anti-tax lobby group. From day one, he has attacked TransLink and framed the organization as a wasteful, reckless and unaccountable agency. Since neither TransLink, nor anybody else, countered that message, it has grown to become practically common sense among most locals.

He didn’t win the ‘No’ victory with $40,000. He won it through four years of free and unchallenged media coverage pushing his anti-tax agenda onto an agency with no leader and no voice. That strategy enabled him to defeat a coalition of 145 institutions, the majority of the region’s elected mayors, and a $7-million education and advertising campaign.

All of which goes to show that when leadership steps up to the plate, people listen. In the vacuum of political leadership from the mayors and the premier, Bateman has filled the void with a simple and appealing message. Those of us who are pro-transit would be wise to learn from his strategy if we ever want to advance our agenda as effectively as he has his.

What next?

So after spending the past two years beating the drum of the referendum, in what has seemingly amounted to an incredibly expensive waste of time, what next? Unless one of these three leaders change their position, absolutely nothing.

The mayors aren’t playing ball; they say the premier has to fix TransLink. The province isn’t taking the bait, instead saying the mayors will have to find the money to contribute their share. All the while, Bateman continues to vilify TransLink, saying they need to tighten their belts before even uttering the word ‘expansion.'

Which leaves me with one simple thought:

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

— Dr. Seuss

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