Thursday, November 6, 2014

The transit ballot measure in Seattle, and the upcoming transit referendum in Metro Vancouver

Last night, I was on Global BC 1 talking about transit funding in Seattle and what it could mean for Metro Vancouver.

In Seattle, like most parts of the US, citizens vote for everything. When Americans go to the polls, they are greeted with a booklet. What we call a referendum in Canada is a ballot measure in the US. Referendums in Canada are a big deal while ballot measures in the US are as routine as voting for a City Councillor.

As ballot measures are routine in the US, there is a strong system in place to advocate for or against a measure. In Canada, we don’t this system in place for referendums which are rare events.

Transit ballot measures overwhelming succeed in the US. The Center for Transportation Excellence tracks transportation ballot measure outcomes. Over the last few years, transit ballot measures have had a 71% to 79% success rate.

In Seattle, Metro Transit was looking at reducing transit service even as transit ridership grew. This was due to a drop in tax revenue as a result of the economic recession.

Washington State has “transportation benefit districts.” These districts allow citizens to vote for vehicle registration levies to pay for transportation systems. Local governments are also allowed to have a voter-approved local sales tax.

A few nights ago, Seattle citizens voted in favour of a 0.1% local sales tax increase plus a $60 per year vehicle levy to fund not only maintaining existing bus service, but to increase bus service in the city.

A group “Yes for Buses!” was formed and had the backing of local government officials, corporations, community organizations, and small business in support of the ballot measure. The US a history of direct democracy and systems in place to inform citizens and “get out the vote.”

In Metro Vancouver, the provincial government has forced a referendum on transit funding upon Metro Vancouver. I have three concerns about the provincially imposed referendum.

We don’t have the systems in place nor the experience in running a pro-transit funding campaign. In Canada, we let our elected officials make the hard decisions. If we don’t like their choices, we vote them out.

In the US, transit ballot measures are usually championed at the local government level. This isn’t the case in Metro Vancouver, it is being imposed on the region. Mayors don’t want a referendum and now even former Transportation Minster Kevin Falcon is hinting that a transit referendum is a bad idea.

What happens if the Metro Vancouver transit referendum fails? In Seattle and King County, voter rejected funding Metro Transit in April. Local leaders went back to the drawing board; Seattle voted to increase transit funding on November 4th.

While I believe our region supports improving transit, a referendum on transit is a bad idea. In the US, there are systems in place for ballots measures. In Canada, we don’t have these systems in place. If the referendum fails in Metro Vancouver what is plan B?

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