On Todd Stone’s letter to the Mayors (part 1)

Less than 24 hours after I wrote this piece on the ongoing fiasco that is the Transportation Referendum*, the Minister of Transportation threw a great big wrench into the already significantly muddled works. Unfortunately, instead of providing helpful guidance during a time of confusion, he brought down a little monetary blackmail, told the Mayors to do his work and make a choice, then took away most of the choices the Mayors may have had.

This was not a good day for the Mayors, the Minister, or the region.

It was a 4-page letter, so I cannot address it all here, and much of it was a repeat of talking points with which the Mayors should already be very depressingly familiar (“ensure traffic congestion is reduced to improve everyone’s commute”… ugh). That said, there was enough new stuff offered that is worth discussing in detail.

The letter starts with the idea of delaying the referendum:

“Some members of the Mayor’s Council have stated…that not enough time remains before November to adequately deliver a referendum…”

This is an interesting piece of rhetoric. That “some of the members” have suggested this is to downplay the entire Mayors Council spoke nearly unanimously on this topic, and their opinion was supported by TransLink management, the business community, organized labour, the media from left and right, and every transportation and regional planning expert asked. The only people who thought this was a good idea were the Premier, Jordan Bateman, and Lois Jackson: A dangerous combination on the best of days.

It also seems to absolve the Minister of any responsibility for having done absolutely nothing to make the Referendum a possibility in November 2014. This referendum was announced by his Boss in a fit of pre-election scrambling, and the election that made the vapid promise “policy” occurred a full human gestation ago. What has the Ministry done in this time to set the parameters for the referendum? Where is the question? Where are the policy ideas? Where is the public discourse on the topic of transportation options? After squandering those 9 months doing nothing, the Minister is now tasking the Mayors’ Council with drawing up a Referendum that they don’t want within 4 months, off the sides of their desks while they already have full-time jobs running their damn cities.

To reinforce that this terrible idea scribbled on a bar napkin by his Boss a year ago is now their problem, he follows up with a little fiscal blackmail:

“If a vision is not ready by June 30, 2014, the next date the provincial government is willing to consider a referendum is in conjunction with the subsequent local government election. This later date would require the Mayor’s Council to use existing funding sources if it wishes to expand transit in the interim period. If the referendum is held… prior to June 30, 2015, the provincial government will compensate local governments for any related administration costs.”

Translated: If they don’t do within the next 4 months what he hasn’t accomplished in the last 9 months, they won’t see a lick of new money until 2017 or 2018, and they will have to not only run the referendum they don’t want, they will have to pay for running it!

“I believe the Mayors’ Council… is best placed to develop and articulate a clear regional transportation vision, ensuring it balances the region’s priorities. Is affordable and supports the movement of people and goods”

Really? Slowly, now: Then. Why. Have. A. Referendum?

So the Minister decides to pass all of the difficult policy development, forecasting, cost estimating, and priority setting to the Mayors. Once he has them lined up, the Minister decides to throw a curveball, followed by the knuckler:

“First, if new funding sources are identified and proposed, they must be generated within the region, and not subsidized by taxpayers in the rest of the province…”

So the rest of the province will not pay anything to support the movement of people or good in the Lower Mainland. Because we all know people in the rest of the province don’t use roads or transit in Vancouver, and no goods moving through this region support businesses or people in the rest of the province? Bullocks.

As an aside, see this graph that shows how BC Transit is funded. This is the agency that provides public transportation everywhere outside of the TransLink catchment, including transit servicing Todd Stone’s new office in Victoria and his home in Kamloops (not that he would ever use these, of course).

So the Lower Mainland is able to pay into general revenue that funds half of the BC Transit System, but none of the rest of the Province is expected to pay one red penny to support TransLink. Can we at least vote on that?

“[second], the provincial government will not permit new funding to be collected from the provincial transportation system situated in the region”

So that, in one short sentence, does it for any creative new ideas that have proven to work elsewhere and serve Transportation Demand Management purposes as well as revenue generation. No tolling of all the major crossings, for a dollar or ten, and absolutely no regional road pricing.

Note both of these decisions were made without the benefit of a Referendum and without consulting those local leaders he so trusted to create a clear vision.

To the Minister’s benefit, there is some potential good news in this letter around a return of some TransLink governance powers to the Mayors. It is too early to tell what the Minister really means by the changes he mentions obliquely – does this mean the Mayor’s rubber stamp will now just precede the non-elected Board’s approval instead of following it, or that they will actually have new  or restored power? Until some draft legislation is sketched up and the Mayors can get a grip on it, no-one can say except Todd Stone.

However, looking at the list of responsibilities the Minister is giving the Mayors (“approval of fare adjustments… oversight of customer satisfaction…sale of major assets…establishing remuneration of TransLink’s Executive”) it seems that the Mayors are being passed a satchel full of political hand grenades without knowing if any still have pins in them.

The question now is how do the Mayors react to this significant shuffling of the deck? I will talk about that in my next post….

*This entire mess is not helped by the uncertain language being used around this referendum on transportation funding for the region. The colloquial in the media has been to call it either a “Transit Referendum” or a “TransLink Referendum”. In fact, the Minister himself used the latter term in his Editorial last week, although all of his subsequent discussion was about “reducing congestion for commuters”. I have been chewing on this, and have decided “Transportation Referendum”” is the fairest term. It is being foisted upon TransLink and the region by the Minister of Transportation, and the decision we are making here is not merely the future of TransLink, it is the future of the region’s transportation infrastructure.

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