How I’m voting on how we vote

Finishing up my own electoral stuff, it is time to move on to the referendum. It seems just yesterday that I was stumping for a Yes vote on a referendum plebiscite from my City Council bully pulpit – how did that one work out?

Nonetheless, I was asked about the Electoral System Referendum a few times during the election and I told people I didn’t want to get distracted while involved in my own campaign, but I would write something about it when the ballots come out. A ballot package is currently sitting on my counter, so here we go.

I am voting for proportional representation (PR) over first past the post (FPTP). The reasons for this are plentiful, and I have done a significant amount of research on this over the last few years, including during the aborted Trudeau campaign to change the federal electoral system. To keep this from expanding into a book-length blog, I am going to simplify a bit on a few key points.

The primary pro-FPTP argument that PR will bring extremists into power is a heaping pile of logical fallacy. In recent FPTP elections we have seen Doug Ford given 100% of the power to invoke the notwithstanding clause to punish his former City Council political enemies with only 40% of the vote. He says he was elected to cut taxes and slash public services when 60% of Ontario Voters voted for the exact opposite. Shortly after, the CAQ were given 100% of the power in Quebec to invoke the notwithstanding clause to pursue their anti-immigration and anti-free-expression campaign after garnering 38% of the vote. These are extremist views for Canada. A PR system may allow these voices into legislatures, but there is significantly less chance they would earn enough votes to achieve the power needed to shift policy towards those views.

Despite FPTP-supporter arguments, you will always have a locally-accountable MLA under any of the PR systems. Every system has you voting for a direct MLA representative as you do now, the difference is that all systems will give you at least one more second MLA who is also representing you. It is also likely this second MLA will be from a different party than your first MLA. Remember how during the Teacher’s Strike, all of those BC Liberal MLAs locked their office doors and refused to meet their constituents? Too often in an artificial FPTP majority, the job of that MLA is to represent the party’s interest to the community, not vice versa. When a government policy impacts your life negatively, it is important that you have someone in your community who can assure that your concern is carried to the legislature. PR provides this much better than FPTP.

Jurisdictions that use PR are more successful by almost any measure of good governance. There is a significant body of evidence from around the world about the results of different systems. Among OCED democracies, those that use some form of PR have consistently higher Human Development Index scores, have less income inequality, have stronger environmental regulation and are leading the world on addressing greenhouse gas reduction. The quality of life for their residents is higher and their electoral participation levels are higher. It is almost as if these two things go hand-in hand. This is why the PR argument is so much about “making your vote count” – it results in governments adopting policies that appeal to a broader range of voters. Who could possibly be against that?

These arguments aside, I was caused to step back and look at this situation in a different way a few months ago when I was chatting with MLA Bowinn Ma on a SkyTrain trip. Memory being what it is and she being much more nuanced and eloquent than I, we can call this a paraphrase. She pointed out that every argument for FPTP was about who would take power after the election, while every argument for PR was about how we can make more votes count. This is a simple but profound difference in vision for what we are trying to achieve through democracy. I believe the latter is a better, more hopeful vision, which is probably why I find their arguments more compelling. I hope this referendum will give us an opportunity to reach for that better vision.

The second question asks which of the three proposed PR systems I would prefer. Here is where it gets tougher. I am going to list in order of my preference, but recognize that no one system is perfect (but none are as imperfect as the current FPTP system).

Mixed Member Proportional – This is the most tried-and-true proportional representation system. In BC, it would mean our ridings would grow a little in size, and every riding would have an MLA elected by FPTP like they are today. However, ridings would be clumped together into small regions of several ridings that would have regional MLAs. You would be able to vote on that regional representatives, but the persons serving that role would not be elected by straight FPTP, but allocated to make party representation across the province match that of the overall vote. The ballot can be simple, the change in our ridings is minor, and PR is achieved. This wins in the balancing simple and easy to understand while also giving you an opportunity to vote for a great local candidate who may not be with the party of the Premier you want to see elected.

Dual Member Proportional– This is a system modified for Canada, where most ridings are merged into two ridings, with on MLA elected on the current FPTP system, and a second appointed based on electoral results in order to balance party representation across the province. This seems to be intended to simplify the ballot (you only vote once), but otherwise has no advantages I can find over MMP. You lose the ability to vote for Party A but an outstanding local candidate for Party B like you get from MMP – in other words, this forces you to choose a great local rep OR a party affiliation, but not necessarily both.

Rural-Urban Proportional– This hybrid system mixes Single Transferable Vote for the “urban” parts of BC, expanding ridings to 4-7 MLAs and a ranked ballot to allow you to vote for as many or as few as you might like, and a Mixed Member Proportional system (top) for rural ridings. I can see where this idea appears – it provides sophisticated urban political nerds like me an appealing ranked ballot, but also assures the rural ridings of the province won’t feel like they are losing their disproportional representation in Victoria. I dislike it for both of those reasons, and it being the most complicated system, I don’t think it will really be embraced by the voting public.

So put me down for Yes and MMP. I honestly would be happier with any of the three options than I am with FPTP, so the second question is really rather…uh… secondary. But please fill it out, because it is fun to fill our ranked ballots, and because I want to do everything I can to support the government having the political will to make this change.

I thought it would be better.

My gut reaction after hearing the dismal Transportation and Transit Plebiscite TransLink Referendum results was summed up in this cheeky tweet:


I guess I should expand on that, given a few hours of sober thought.

1: This was the Province’s idea, and Todd Stone’s job was to make it happen. He is the Minister of Transportation for all of the Province, not just those suffering from left-lane bandits and oppressive speed limits. Everything about TransLink is provincial: the make-up of it’s Board, it’s enacting legislation, and the ultimate decision on funding. This is Todd Stone’s file, so if he is not accountable for the loss, who is? Realistically, when was the last time a Cabinet Minister in BC lost their job for not doing their job? Maybe it is time we brought accountability to the government that demands it from everyone else.

2: This Plan would have cost contributed to the local economy $7.5 Billion over the next 10 years, including the matching funds from senior governments and revenue increases related to new infrastructure. By comparison, the current debt load for the Port Mann Bridge is $3.6 Billion, and the traffic counts simply will not agree with those that project would require to pay that debt back. With the proposed tunnel replacement being just as wide, significantly longer, and with much more challenging geotechnical aspects, we can expect the Massey Replacement Bridge to be at least the same cost, for a crossing that sees less traffic than the Port Mann, and whose use is dropping. Having established (and reinforced) that the voters have a right to determine how Billions in transportation infrastructure is financed, clearly we will need to vote on this new $3 Billion + bridge.

3: Pissed off about SkyTrain reliability, accessibility, or even the cleanliness and security of the system? Disappointed because your bus is late again? Getting the bus service in your neighbourhood “optimized”, so now you have no way to get to your shift-work job without leasing a Hyundai? Sick and tired of cars queued up on your surface streets because people living in Maple Ridge or Langley have no viable option but to drive through New Westminster across a rickety old bridge every day? Don’t call your Mayor, don’t call the TransLink Complaints line, don’t write an angry letter to the local newspaper. Instead, contact Jordan Bateman and find out how our new regional leader will solve your troubles through tax cuts. His phone number is 604.999.3319. You could e-mail him at, but really, as a “Taxpayer”, you deserve to get your answers directly from him. Give him a call. Please pull over safely to shoulder before doing so.

Call Jordan.
Don’t scream, don’t swear. Call Jordan. 604-999-3319. He can help.


In all seriousness, I thought the result would be closer. Up until the day, I thought 55% NO was the likely result. Of course, I expected New Westminster and Vancouver, with their large transit-dependent resident populations and (and just as important, but not as well represented) Transit-dependent businesses, would vote YES in the majority, and Burnaby would be close, only hurt by Mayor Corrigan’s temper-tantrum based approach to the situation. To see Maple Ridge go 25% was not a surprise, even their Mayor did not understand that this referendum was going to benefit them more than most communities, and thought a NO vote would somehow get them more buses.  On the flip side, to see Bowen and Belcarra both so strongly Yes was a surprise. Maybe they recognize their single Community Shuttle services were high on the chopping list as the belt tightens on TransLink. Who knows.

But it was Richmond that shocked me the most. This City has, over the last 5 years, seen directly how transformative transit investment can be. The Canada Line is overcrowded after only a few years, and if anything is suffering from a lack of capacity and frequency, while a new City Centre of compact livable space booms around it. Semi-suburban office space is becoming vacant as businesses want to move closer to frequent transit. In 2015, Richmond is a Transit Success Story, yet only the comparative transit deserts of Langley and Maple Ridge turned fewer YES votes. It defies logic.

It is too early to guess what happens next. I speculated earlier (and only the most cynical parts of that are already coming true. See: Jordan Bateman). But with the Premier not providing any media contact, and the Minister only saying that everyone else has to smarten up, we are entering uncertain territory.

I will make one quick comment on a common speculation out there: “Property Tax” will not be the solution. After what we just went through, I cannot imagine a majority of Mayors will come together to agree on a Property Tax formula to raise the $250M/year. Can you imagine the Mayor of West Vancouver (already the highest taxes in the region) agreeing to increase his property taxes to support a plan 56% of his voters said NO to? Or Richmond at 72% NO? Even in Maple Ridge and Langley who have the lowest property values, and therefore would presumably face the least relative burden, while having the most need, there is no Mayor dumb enough to suggest it is time to invest in TransLink. You expect Corrigan to step up now? Calculating a Property Tax formula that is fair, equitable, and provides the stable funding that transit expansion requires is a monumental task. So I would be surprised if a “property tax”-based solution was found any time soon.

The Plan included discussion of a comprehensive regional road-pricing initiative. This will be no less complicated, and politically very prickly (which, in our new reality, means that Jordan Bateman is going to hate it – “Taxpayers paying for what they use!? What about the WASTE!”), but in the long run, it is the most logical public policy. Admittedly, I have no idea how we get there from here, though.

At best, that is several years off, and in the meantime, expect your property taxes to go up anyway. Roads, parking and congestion cost cities a lot of money. Providing, maintaining, and policing expanded asphalt will only get more expensive. With the regional situation in such flux, it is important that we continue assuring our local roads and sidewalks are as safe, accessible, and efficient as can be. As for the rest… that story has yet to be told.

Predictions before Results

The polls on the Translink Transit Transportation referendum plebiscite are closed, the ballots are filled in, but the counting is only beginning. The message from ElectionsBC is that turnout was slightly higher than expected, so the counting is going to take a little longer. It is being suggested that it will likely be three weeks before we have results. The cynic in me suggests the Friday before the week where everyone is trying to decide which weekend to make extra long around the mid-week Canada Day is the perfect time for the provincial government to announce the results of something they really want to avoid talking about, so prediction 1 is that “results day” will be June 26.

I am a guy who likes the occasionally wager, but I’m not taking any bets on the referendum plebiscite result. I think the count will be closer than anyone expects (within 5% either way), but you would need to give me positive odds to make any kind of bet. The turnout is higher than we anticipated, which could be good (the YES side really motivated their voters) or bad (the NO side didn’t throw their ballots away in disgust, but made the effort to vote), and the spread regionally is a lot flatter than I thought.

If you really want to speculate, you can have some fun sticking numbers into Brad Cavanagh’s Plebiscite Predictor tool (my two-minute guess via that tool? 52% No).  Aside from that fun, I’m not going to pretend any kind of ability to predict the result, but I am going to try to predict what happens after the result.

If the result is a YES, the predictions are much easier. The provincial government will cob together a bit of self-back-patting for having such foresight, and will wait until the last possible second to produce some sort of enabling legislation so the PST increase can come into effect on January 1, 2016. Jordan Bateman will make some sort of “martyr against Big Government” reference, say the entire process was rigged and therefore invalid, will hunt for anecdotes of the new tax causing incredible hardship to some person, then will move on to attacking the healthcare system or public education or public toilets or whatever the next great evil is on the Fraser Institute list.

Meanwhile, the Mayors will get to work updating their local transportation plans to suit the new reality, and both the federal and provincial governments will find a way to open the taps so that they can cut the ribbons on every new project. Expect a lot of re-announcements. Municipalities (even those whose Mayors did not support the YES side) will start applying for the matching grants that are going to be available to improve their roads and pedestrian/cycling networks (such as the Q2Q Bridge) and more ribbons will be cut. Councils will update their plans to design future communities around the expanded Frequent Bus Network (in the shorter term) and the new light rail and Skytrain investments (in the longer term).

The Mayors will also continue (as they have for the last decade) to call for a complete re-vamping of TransLink, including a review of the “governance problem” to address the issues that were being raised long before the referendum plebiscite, but were thrown into brighter light by the referendum plebiscite process. I cannot predict if the province will take any action to fix those issues, as they are the only organization that can. Regardless, Mayors will still have disputes about who is getting more service or less and who is pulling their weight as far as regional transportation (i.e. Delta will continue to complain about getting no service, even as they watch a $3-billion bridge being constructed in their front yard), but at least we can move on to arguing about what is being built, and stop arguing about what isn’t. Overall, the region will move on with a good idea what the next 10 years (two council terms!) will bring.

If the results are a NO, the predictions are much more difficult. Of course, we know Jordan Bateman will make some reference to David slaying Goliath, say the process proves that the people are always right (at least when they are battling taxes), then will move on with new vigour to attacking the healthcare system or public education or public toilets or whatever the next great evil is on the Fraser Institute list. How everyone else will react is harder to see.

The Mayors have got a problem, because they need to keep their cities and the region moving, and it would be suggested that the last 2 years since the word plebiscite“referendum” first arose in the heat of the last provincial election, have been almost completely wasted.

Except they really haven’t been wasted. During that time, the Mayors put a plan together that (almost) all of them supported. They managed to put away the knives and agree on a set of priorities and principles. Even after a NO vote, few will argue that the vote was against the Plan (how many times did people say “I like transit and support it, but I’m voting NO because…”). The Mayor of Surrey thinks she can build light rail on her own; the Mayor of Vancouver has no such delusions about the Broadway line. Few are talking about the real meat’n’potatoes of this plan: the new busses, the expanded Frequent Bus Network, B-lines, and night busses, the increased capacity on the existing SkyTrain network, which will benefit every Mayor if the region, from Delta to West Vancouver to Maple Ridge. These things need to happen if we are going to have a livable region, and they need to happen soon. How do we get there?

And again, regardless of the referendum plebiscite result, the Mayors have to continue to press for the governance changes at TransLink that they have been calling for since the 2007 re-org that shuffled them aside from the real regional planning role.

The province has a couple of choices. They can see a NO vote as opportunity to open the TransLink can of worms, and create something new that the region can work with. However, there is no evidence this is actually something the province is desirous of.

Alternately, they can try to turn this back on the Mayors and say: You failed, live with it. They can march ahead with the Massey Tunnel replacement (no referendum) and step in to fund a larger 6- or 8-lane Pattullo (now that alternatives are off the table), and then, I dunno – a new Second Narrows? Rest assured they will beam of their commitment to transit when cutting the ribbon on the Evergreen Line, and if the fall election gives Dianne Watts any influence in Ottawa, maybe the new Mayor of Surrey will get a light rail bauble for her crown. However, without the comprehensive plan, without the commitment to new busses, more B-lines, higher frequency and more reliability on the existing Skytrain System, and a list of priorities something like the Mayor’s Plan, a functional Transit system we will not have.

Trying to understand the Province’s strategy by their public communications is like trying to read tea leaves. The most recent comments by the Premier are not particularly helpful. Allow me to parse:

“what ever happens, people in the lower mainland want more transit. I think everybody agrees with that. The question they are being asked now is how do they want to pay for that transit?”

Respectfully, no. That is not the question “they” are being asked. There have been more than half a dozen proposals about different ways to fund transit (and roads and bridges and cycling, but I’ll give it the pass here) expansion, from property taxes to road pricing to sales taxes and car levies –this proposal was the only one the Province took to the voters. The question “they” are being asked is actually: “Do you want to pay for this specific set of transit and transportation infrastructure through this specific and very limited method?” This is apparent in the many varying (and often self-contradictory) reasons people have provided for voting NO. Actually, if you follow the “no” side rhetoric closely, the question is more “would you like to take the food out of the mouths of struggling hard-working families to build a big cash vault for TransLink Executives to roll in?”

“I think that proposal is a sound one, and I think it would be great for job creation in the lower mainland… it would be great for transit and for the environment in the lower mainland but I think people have a right to make that choice.”

If it is imperative that people have a “right to make that choice” on a specific initiative that will clearly provide so many benefits, from the environment to job creation to the health of the region, someone has to ask why? If it is the right thing to do, and every elected person in the region agrees (with only very few exceptions), why are we intentionally throwing a taxpayer revolt at it? And please remind me again where this “right to make that choice” starts and stops, because no-one voted on the Port Mann, the Massey Tunnel Replacement, LNG plants up the whazoo, MSP premium increases or education budget cuts. Ugh, there I go, criticising the process again… Let me get back on track here.

It seems the one place the Premier and I agree is that the Mayors Plan, or something like it, has to happen, and very soon. As a region we cannot afford to balkanize our sustainable transportation system while the Ministry of Transportation pushes freeways through our neighbourhoods, because that is the only option left. The Pecha Kucha presentation by Gordon Price in February put it as clearly and eloquently as anyone could: Planning for a Sustainable Transportation Plan is an integral to what we are as a region, to everything we love about Greater Vancouver, Cities in a Sea of Green:

Cities in a Sea of Green (worth your 6 minutes to hear).

I think the Mayors would be best served by immediately coming out after a NO announcement and saying “this is still the plan”. Then ask the province, in no uncertain terms, to live up to what the Premier is quick to reiterate: This region needs transit investment, and it is the Province’s responsibility to get it done. We tried the referendum plebiscite route, we still have a viable plan here: What next?

Because there will be finger-pointing and blaming here if it goes to a NO, and the Mayors need to stand together, or they will fall apart, and the people hoping for a sustainable future of the region – those of us who want this City to be livable for the coming decades – will be the biggest losers.

On disclosure

I was about to publish my long-delayed blog post on the campaign financial disclosures from the November election, but then saw another declaration was released, and found it so humorously ham-fisted, that I have to write about that first. (I’m massaging some graphs for the other one… will be ready soon)

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation have always been reluctant to talk about where their money comes from, but as the front organization for Federal Conservative datamining the NO side in the ongoing Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite, they attempted to get some press this week by releasing a declaration of their campaign contributions.

Except, of course, they did no such thing.

Their declaration document, which you can read in its entirety here, is amazingly bereft of details, and suffers from some basic math problems (reinforcing the notion that math is not a CTF strong point).

The document states that the NO campaign has a budget of $27,259.30. That came from anonymous donations amounting to $7,003.30, declared donations from 10 individuals that total $5,186, and $14,750 from the CTF coffers. Those numbers leave an unexplained $320 gap, but that is not the real problem with this “declaration”.

Of the $27,259.30, exactly $5,186 is actually disclosed – less than 20% of the total money they are spending is from a declared source. The largest contribution, the $14K from the CTF itself, will never be declared, nor is it clear if this declaration actually covers the true cost of this campaign – not the least including what portion of Jordan Bateman’s $75,000 annual sticking-up-for-the-little-guy salary is included, or how much Hamish Marshall is getting paid, because he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who works for free.

"Declared" donations to the NoTranslinkTax campaign by category.
“Declared” donations to the NoTranslinkTax campaign by category.

More concerning, the 160 (or 153, as the CTF doesn’t even get the number of donators correct) people donating to the campaign, they list 10 people, or 6%. How is that “Releasing a Donor’s List?” And , of course, that 160 (153?) people does not include the mysterious people who pump up the CTF tires every day.

The CTF, with this half-hearted and untruthful declaration is in no position to criticize the Better Transit and Transportation Coalition, which is comprised of (at last count) more than 130 member organizations, all listed on the website. It is clear that the Mayor’s Council is spending money on this campaign, and each City that contributes is going to need to account for how that money is being spent (for example, New Westminster set a budget of $20,000, and is within that budget). It is also clear that TransLink took some of the money they regularly spend on advertising every year (a little under 1% of their budget) in order to get the word out about the Plan. That is public money and will be declared publicly, as is the law for these types of organizations.

However most of the partners in the coalition, from the David Suzuki Foundation to the Vancouver Board of Trade and Unifor all have their own accounting requirements, and will need to declare to their members how their money is being spent. The CTF will need to do this as well, but no-one expects that to be a public declaration, and besides a few board members and spokespeople, no-one is really sure who their members actually are. So I’m not criticizing the CTF for not being open about their spending, I’m criticizing them for pretending to be open and daring anyone else to pretend to be as open as them. Yet another silly distraction.

In the spirit of providing some positive after all that criticism above, and talking about data that isn’t a distraction. Here is a much better source of info on the numbers that matter in this plebiscite. It is an ongoing project that is using some data visualization and data crunching to tall the more nuanced story about how we fund transportation in the region. They are just starting up, but the early results look good. And their pie charts are way cooler than mine:


The Future of the Region – Yes or No.

A few interesting developments on the Referendum front, and it has been a while since I wrote about it. Unless you have been living under a rock, or work in a phone bank for the BC Liberal party*, you are aware there is a referendum going on to decide how we will invest in transportation in the region.

We are less than two weeks from when ballots go in the mail, so it is a good idea for you to look into how you will vote, so you don’t lose your franchise. Elections BC recently released the full details of how the Plebiscite** is going to work. A few details:

If you were born before May 30, 1997, have been a resident of BC since November 29, 2014, are a Canadian resident and live in Metro Vancouver, you can register to vote online at the Elections BC website or call their 1-800 number (you need a Driver’s Licence or a Social Insurance Number). You will get a ballot in the mail. If you don’t get a ballot in the mail in March, you should contact Elections BC and request one. You have until March 29 to return your ballot. The Mayor’s Council set up this helpful graphic to show you the timelines of the vote.


Like my council Colleagues across the region, I have been busy with this campaign. As unique as the voting mechanism is, this is just an election campaign, and identifying your vote and getting it out requires a lot of organization. I have been talking to community groups, helping with phone volunteers to identify support bases, and helping develop the get-out-the-vote plan, etc. etc.

I’ve said before that democracy is not what happens on election day, but how we, as citizens, get involved between elections to get the most out of our elected representatives. If you think this referendum needs to be won, if you think we need to put the brakes on the cuts to transit service and enter a new era of transit expansion in our region, then I ask you – what are you doing about it? Get in touch with me, with the City of New Westminster, or the Mayor’s Council to see how you can help.

When I have time to be involved in the “air war”, I have concentrated on two things (an links below are to others doing exactly that):

1: Outline in as much detail as the audience needs about the myriad of benefits, tangible and otherwise, that this plan delivers to New Westminster and the region; and

2: Hit back aggressively at specific mistruths being propagated by a few very prominent members of the NO side.

One thing that always gives me a chuckle is the plethora of advice for how the YES side should be campaigning, mostly delivered by people loosely connected to the no side (for example, the wife of the guy who is coordinating the NO campaign for the CTF) and wrapped in sanctimony. We have been told, at times, to stop using scare mongering and stick to the facts; that we can’t rely on facts but should instead go for emotion; that we need to describe the plan in detail so people understand; that we need to simplify the message; that we need to appeal to “Joe Sixpack”, or “Students”, or that we should stop relying on “special interest groups”.

I thank them for the advice, but to me, the most effective message I have heard was delivered by Gordon Price at the PechaKucha New West event two weeks ago. It was an inspiring 6 minutes on the past, present and future of the region. After it ended, I thought “we need to get this on YouTube”. Turns out people (as usual) were way ahead of me, and a (slightly shortened, better produced) version has just been made available by the good folks at Modacity. If you do nothing else before you vote, take 4 minutes to watch this video***, if you want to understand what this referendum is really about:

Vote Yes. For nothing less than the future of the region as we know it.

*I received a phone call from a BC Liberal**** fundraiser on Wednesday evening. I allowed him to go through his script about balanced budgets and good times ahead before I asked him what the party was doing to encourage support for the Referendum that the Leader had called, and was (tacitly) supporting. The poor guy had not even heard that there was a referendum going on. He claimed to be in Burnaby (and I have no reason to doubt him, as he seemed to understand what TransLink was and claimed to watch Global News, so he wasn’t in Topeka or Bangalore). I made what I think was a compelling case for the reasons to support the Yes side, and he asked if the result of the referendum would be a deciding factor in the next election for me. I said no, but the leadership shown during the referendum definitely was. He thanked me for my time, and actually forgot to ask for money.

**Yes, this is a Plebiscite, not a Referendum. The differences are rather arcane. In most jurisdictions, the words are synonymous. In BC, they both mean “a vote on matter of public concern”. Where a Referendum is governed by the Referendum Act and “is usually binding on the government”, a Plebiscite is governed by the Elections Act and “may be binding on the government”. Remarkably, this vote is not being regulated by either, but by something called the “South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority Funding Referenda Act”. Regardless, the Provincial Government changed the language from referendum to a plebiscite when the ballot was released, you can make up your own reasons why. Safe to say, whatever it is called, the results of this vote will be politically binding on the government, if not legally binding.

***Note the book at 1:03 in the video. None other than Charles Montgomery’s The Happy City. Nice touch.

**** Since I wrote that footnote*****, I have noticed that some of the strongest messages coming out on the YES side are coming from BC Liberal MLAs, so I am glad to give kudos to the members of the party who are seeing the importance of this vote, and are putting their political capital into it. We need more of this in the next month.

***** This footnote thing is getting out of hand.  

My 1500-word case.

I started writing a note to a group I was hoping would support the YES side of the upcoming Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite, and it turned into a bit of an extended rant. Actually, after re-reading, it appeared to be very un-ranty for me, which first disappointed me, then made me a little proud. So I thought I would share it here (edited slightly for audience). So here is my 1,500ish-word case for the Yes vote.

I’ll list some facts for clarity, then give you my opinions. See if you can tell where it shifts.

The Plebiscite

The Plebiscite asks for a 0.5% increase on the PST to fund a package of transportation and transit capital projects across the Lower Mainland. This money is specifically earmarked for the projects listed in the Mayor’s Plan released last year, and there will be annual independent audits to assure the money is spent as promised.

The Plebiscite will be my mail-in ballot. Elections BC has not released all of the election details yet, however indications are that ballots will be mailed to every person on the Elections BC voters list. To vote you need to be 18, a resident of the area served by TransLink, a Canadian Citizen, a resident of BC for the last 6 months, and you must be registered to vote at your current address. The ballot will be mailed in March, and you will have until the middle of May to return it.

The “Congestion Improvement Tax”

The regional CIT is a 0.5% sales tax that will raise something in the order of $250 Million per year for the next 10 years. The province has committed to matching funds, and suggest the Feds would as well; when these three sources are combined it equals $7.5 Billion over 10 years.

The CIT will cost the “average household” something in the order of $100 per year. The number is hard to parse exactly, because it depends on how much you spend. The average household income for the lower mainland is about $60,000, and if you spend all of this on PST-taxable items (i.e. didn’t buy food, pay rent or purchase haircuts) then your burden would be $300.

To put the tax rate in transit-oriented perspective, if you buy a $1000 television, you will pay $5 in CIT, which is less than the cost of a single 3-zone ride. If you purchase a $34,000 car, the CIT will cost you $170, which is equivalent to a single month 3-zone bus pass.

The Mayors Plan:

After almost two years of discussion, negotiation, and finagling, the Mayors of Metro Vancouver agreed almost unanimously on a planned package of improvements (the Mayor of Burnaby was the only dissenting voice):

3 light rail lines in Surrey, which will connect the King George SkyTrain station to a line along 104th to Guildford Town Centre, a second along King George Highway to Newton, and a third to Langley Town Centre along the Fraser Highway;

1 Broadway Corridor extension of the Millennium Line all the way to Arbutus;

1 replacement Pattullo Bridge. The Plan will provide an important portion of the capital funding to build a new 4-lane bridge, with the balance of the capital coming from tolls;

11 new B-line routes, adding up to 200km of much more frequent service. 3 of these lines are in Surrey, 2 are in the North-east section, the rest are in Burnaby-Vancouver, or connect Burnaby-Vancouver to target destinations (Richmond, UBC, SFU, North Vancouver);

400 new buses, which means more frequent service, extended hours, and higher reliability for everyone who uses busses;

50% increase in Seabus service – more frequency, longer operation al hours;

80% more night bus service;

30% more HandyDart services;

129 additional Skytrain/Canada Line fleet vehicles on existing lines, providing more frequent,
reliable, and comfortable service;

2,700 km of bikeway improvements.

Impact on New Westminster:

The City is in support of this plan because it provides valuable tools for us to achieve the goals of our Master Transportation Plan, and helps meet many of the City’s objectives towards building a more sustainable, inclusive, affordable and livable community.

The Pattullo Bridge plan is a good one for New Westminster. The bridge will be 4 lanes, and will be tolled. Both of these are issues the City has pressed hard and negotiated towards. The bridge will be built to accommodate future expansion to 6 Lanes (and this is the exact language of the agreement) “if need arises, to meet demand increases beyond current forecasts”. The plan does not include funding for this expansion to 6 lanes, and tolling the bridge and providing the alternatives (light rail and B-line expansion South of the Fraser) is our best assurance that the demand increase that would drive future expansion to 6 lanes will not occur.

More frequent SkyTrain and bus service will of course have a huge impact on New Westminster, which has one of the highest per capita transit use rates in the lower mainland. These new buses will turn the tide on “service rationalization” that has seen two bus routes reduced in New Westminster in the last two years. Larger, more frequent SkyTrain cars mean you are more likely to fit in the first train that arrives at 8:00 in the morning at New West Station, instead of trying to decide if the next train might be a little less packed. Increased Night Bus service will have a huge impact on shift workers (think RCH – our largest employer) and night owls. Increased HandyDart service will help keep our community connected and accessible for more people.

However, providing improved transit service to South of the Fraser and the Northeast Sector is also a major “win” for New Westminster, as it provides viable alternatives to people so they do not have to drive through New West on their daily commute. This is not the solution to New Westminster’s traffic problems, but it is a huge step in the right direction.

Plan B:

We cannot talk about the YES side without acknowledging the NO side. What will be the result of a NO vote? Frankly, no-one knows for sure, but we can make some educated guesses.

We can be fairly sure that the scale and pace of expansion offered by the Mayors Plan will not occur. No provincial government interested in staying in government is going to reply to a NO vote from the public by introducing a new taxation scheme to replace what was just voted down. The Mayors could, in theory, decide to fund this plan with property taxes, however if you read the history of how we got to where we are now, the chances of a plurality of Mayors agreeing to that in short order are very slim, especially as they will be under the same pressure as the provincial government to not approve a tax that the people just voted down. (I will ignore for now the public policy argument that property taxes are a terrible way to pay for transit infrastructure).

Note that almost every other alternative to funding proposed by the Mayors (carbon tax recovery, vehicle levy, gas tax increase, comprehensive road pricing program, funding from general revenue) has been nixed by consecutive Ministers of Transportation. It is not as if there wasn’t a Plan B considered, it is that no proposed Plans B have received consensus support.

In New Westminster, a NO vote almost certainly means continued “rationalization” of bus services. The delay at getting rapid transit built in Surrey will put more pressure on the Pattullo and provide incentive for a 6-lane option. The delay in other transit expansion projects mean more people will be forced (note – I didn’t say “choose”) to include driving through New Westminster’s neighbourhoods on their daily commute to Surrey or the Northeast sector. Congestion will increase the cost of moving goods, will erode the livability of our community, and will empower the government to build yet more lanes of unsustainable transportation infrastructure – with your tax money, and without a referendum.


It is important to remember that TransLink is the agency created by the provincial government to operate Greater Vancouver’s regional transportation system. It exists at the pleasure of the provincial government, and is governed by them. The province could disband, re-regulate, or replace TransLink tomorrow, but the region would still require a public transit operator who would operate the expanded capital assets the Mayors Plan will provide.

There may be significant governance issues with TransLink, however those governance issues are not part of this Plebiscite, nor has the province suggested that governance changes at TransLink will result from a YES or NO result. To suggest so is pure speculation with no basis in the public record. TransLink is not running the Plebiscite, nor are they particularly in favour of it. Every indication is that TransLink has the same position as the Mayors (if I may paraphrase: “we wish we didn’t have to go through this exercise to get adequate funding, but if this is the only path provided to us to build our service level, let’s get going).

This Plebiscite will raise funds to build capital projects, and the funds raised are specifically earmarked for the projects proposed. The province and Mayors have agreed to annual external audits and reporting on how the funds are spent, providing a level of transparency and accountability unparalleled in the history of transportation capital budgeting in the province. This money is not going into a TransLink black hole, but into tangible assets we can see operating. If you want to see more accountability in how TransLink spends, this provides it.

In summary

I am very much on the record in my support for limiting the lanes on the Pattullo to 4 lanes, and tolling the bridge; I have advocated for better public transit in New Westminster; I have supported the mode shift goals of the Master Transportation Plan; and I have supported working with our regional partners to build a more sustainable transportation network;

All of these goals are supported by a YES vote on the Plebiscite,
None of them are supported by a NO vote.
So I’m voting YES.

Fare Evasion and Jordan Bateman

There was furious action on the War on Public Transit this week, as our local Libertarian hypocrite from the misnamed Canadian Taxpayers Federation again got unexplained media saturation by suggesting that fare evasion on lower mainland transit is some sort of a scandal, or worse – proof of incompetence at TransLink. It sounds compelling, but it is just predictable CTF misinformation.

Allow me to explain.

The latest CTF anti-transit rhetorical volley is based on data released on the “no fare paid” button on TransLink buses. This is the process through with bus drivers account for improperly paid fares (fare evaders, those paying too much, those crossing a zone boundary without paying the premium, etc). Drivers counted 2.76 Million incorrect fares in 2013, which is an increase of 250,000 over 2011. This, in the rhetorical world of the CTF, proves that TransLink is irresponsible, inefficient, and cannot be trusted with the public’s purse. It is further implied that if they could only solve this simple problem, TransLink may not need those new funds being requested through the upcoming referendum.

There are several problems with this narrative, and I might be accused of senseless idealism when I expect our “liberal media” to point them out instead of just parroting Bateman talking points.

For example, the media could put the numbers in perspective. 10 seconds on Google, and one can find TransLink’s financial disclosures, and find that there were 355 Million boardings in the TransLink system in 2013. That means 2.76 Million “non-fares” represent 0.8% of the boardings. In a rational world, an organization as worried about the public purse as the CTF would be touting TransLink’s phenomenal record of collecting fares from 99.2% of passengers on a crowded, chaotic, distributed system with literally thousands of moving fare collection stations comprising what is, essentially, an honour system*.

The CTF makes further hay out of the trend. A 10% increase in “fare evasion” since 2011 sure sounds like a trend should be worried about. Except again, no. TransLink collected $433Million in fare revenue in 2011 and $481 Million in 2013. Over those two years, ridership basically flatlined (356M boardings to 355M boardings, thanks to “rationalization” of routes) but fare revenue went up by 11%. Again, the CTF fails to tout that TransLink is doing an 11% better job squeezing users for revenue, reducing the burden on the poor taxpayer the only way they can without senior government approval.

What about the lost money though? Surely this means TransLink is hemorrhaging money due to scofflaws and lazy drivers? Again, the data says something different. Assuming those fare evaders would have paid if forced to (instead of just walking or hitchhiking or dying where they stood, whatever) that would have resulted in about $7 Million more revenue. Compare that to the $481 Million in fare revenue collected in 2013, and it represents a 1.4% revenue bleed, which is not unsubstantial, but hardly breaks the bank. In comparison, the Congestion Improvement Tax (ugh, still hate that stupid moniker) will raise about $250 Million per year, all of which will go to Capital Projects, not operations.

When Bateman says “TransLink can’t properly manage the system they already have – they certainly can’t be trusted with another $7.5 billion of our money,” he is suggesting not just that this fare evasion is a huge problem, but that TransLink is incompetent at stopping it. What he doesn’t suggest is a way to close that gap, and there is a good reason for that: diminishing returns.

Yes, we could put an armed guard on every bus enforcing payment and issuing receipts, and fare evasion would approach zero, but it would be prohibitively expensive, and the return on revenue would not cover the cost. This has been the central story all along on the Falcon Gate fiasco – TransLink was forced by the Former Minister of Transportation to install an expensive faregate system that TransLink knew would never cover the cost of the fares evasion it was meant to prevent. (Oh, and it is just a coincidence that that the guy who tried to get that same Minister of Transportation made into the Premier is now going to lead the NO campaign for the CTF, but I digress).

Any rational person has to understand that fare-evasion-zero is not possible (just like Zero Tolerance on parking meter violations or speeding or drugs is impossible). A rational person with any business sense at all says that reasonable effort should be made to push that evasion towards zero, up until the point where the cost of those efforts exceeds the money saved through enforcement. Pushing past that point makes no monetary sense if the goal of fares is to earn revenue. I frankly don’t know what that magic point is – at what point further enforcement costs more than it is worth – but if I was a betting man, I would put my money on something around 1%, because that is a common number the tolerance TransLink and other transit systems gravitate towards. Bateman thinks it is a different number (closer to zero), but I’d like to see him (a person with no experience running a multi-modal transit system) demonstrate what that number is, and explain his rationale.**

But he won’t, because he is not interested in public policy or rational discussion. He is interested in getting headlines by making irrational arguments that clip well in order to get donations for his organization. And our media provide him that free advertising every day.

If you think I am being mean to Jordan Bateman, you are right, because he used to be someone I respected. As a City Councillor in Langley, he was a voice of reason and an excellent communicator. I didn’t often agree with his politics, but always liked the way he tried to explain his thought process through contentious issues. I know people who worked for him, and he had a reputation as a Councillor who did his homework, collected the data he needed to understand issues, and defended his decisions based on that knowledge. He knew that there was an objective truth and that good governance required it. He was the kind of City Councillor I want to be. This makes him a disappointment whenever I see him acting like a clown for the TV cameras.

Back then, Bateman not only had a much more rational approach to taxation, he was a supporter of increased capital funding to TransLink to provide improved light rail and transit service, specifically so his children would not be cursed with another generation of entrenched motordom. Unfortunately, he is now the one person in the province most interested in leading the campaign against exactly what he called for 7 years ago. And he has yet to provide any meaningful reason why he changed his mind.

And that is a shame. For him, for his kids, and for all of us who want to improve our region.

And I know just by responding to him, I am falling for some sort of Streisand Effect trap he is setting. The result? Just watch, 4 months from now, when the referendum campaigns are in full swing, scofflaw fare evaders and TransLink’s refusal to address this issue are going to be major points repeated uncritically in the media, as Bateman and his ilk keep hitting that drum while providing no actual context to the discussion, until it becomes just another part of the “common sense” that no-one can deny. The lie will become truth, thanks to a guy who used to know the difference.

*Actually, the ever succinct Canspice points out bus boardings in 2013 were actually 228 Million, my number includes SkyTrain boardings. I’m not sure which number is better to use, but I guess whether you are trying to make the point that Bus Drivers are useless or that TransLink is incompetent. As noted by Canspice, if your argument is simply the CTF’s standard “ALL TAXES BAD!”, then I guess it doesn’t matter.

** In looking for this number, I found two fascinating research papers, one using Game Theory to determine if Fare Gates make sense for a public transit system (Optimal choices of fare collection systems for public transportation: barrier versus barrier free: Yasuo Sasaki, Transportation Research Part B: Methodological Volume 60, February 2014, Pages 107–114) and another using multi-variable calculus and economic modelling to determine what the optimum fare inspection rate is for a proof-of-fare transit system like SkyTrain (Fare evasion in proof-of-payment transit systems; Deriving the optimum inspection level: Benedetto Barabino, Sara Salis, and Bruno Useli, Transportation Research Part B: Methodological, Volume 70, December 2014, Pages 1–17).