Metro Vancouver votes ‘no’ to transit tax

Photo credit: Phoebe Lim

The results of the hotly debated Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite were announced on July 2.

With a ‘no’ majority result, 68 per cent of voters voted against the 0.5 per cent PST increase to fund future public transit projects.

The tax would have contributed to increased bus services, maintenance of the Pattullo bridge, and many other transit projects. Critics of the proposal highlighted TransLink’s  perceived history of mismanaging funds and also drew attention to TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis’ compensation, which totalled more than $400,000 for 2013.

Later on the day of the announcement, TransLink weighed in on the results, explaining in an online statement that they were “disappointed, but [they] respect the decision of voters.” The organization also admitted that voting for a tax increase was a “tough sell,” but that it would be a challenge for public transit to meet the growing needs of Vancouver without this extra funding.

“I think it was a mistake for them to hold the referendum.”

Megan Winters, SFU assistant professor of health sciences

The overall results were in stark contrast to a survey The Peak conducted in March, which showed 71 per cent of respondents were planning to vote in favour of the plebiscite. When it came time to vote, only three municipalities out of 23 voted ‘yes’: Bowen Island, the Village of Belcarra, and Metro Vancouver Electoral Area “A.” Maple Ridge had the lowest vote in favour of the tax, with only 23 per cent of voters voting ‘yes’. Altogether, forty nine per cent of eligible voters submitted a ballot, totalling 750,000.

However, the failure of the tax does not necessarily mean that transit will not be developed at all. Surrey mayor Linda Hepner explained to The Now that public transit is the biggest problem the city faces and that new sources of funding will be sought.

“I think it was an uphill battle,” said epidemiologist and SFU assistant professor of health sciences Meghan Winters, explaining that voters aren’t used to long-term policy planning. “We don’t vote on new bridges, we don’t vote [on] road investments, all of which have budgets even larger than the transit referendum.”

According to Winters, policy decisions like this one may be best “left to elected officials.” The last time British Columbians were asked to vote on a similar policy decision was in 2011, when voters rejected the Harmonized Sales Tax by a slight margin.

The media coverage of the vote is also believed to have been a factor in the results, and may have made the vote about something other than what was on the ballot. Winters explained “it’s not many people who are against public transit,” but the ‘no’ campaign focused on the shortcomings of the governance of TransLink, something that was not on the ballot.

When asked about potential reorganization of TransLink, Winters said, “Oh, something’s going to happen in TransLink, sure,” expressing a necessity to accommodate the growing Vancouver population’s need for public transit without any new sources of funding. “In the meantime, we won’t have dedicated long-term funding to strategic regional transportation and transit investment” she added.

Winters expressed her dissatisfaction with the process, saying, “I think it was a mistake for them to hold the referendum.”

In the coming years, Winters predicts that TransLink will have the considerable challenge of holding up to public scrutiny, while navigating a period of scarce funding and growing demand.