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Businesses, politicians start building the case for more money for transit in Lower Mainland

November 6th, 2013 · 4 Comments

Catching up on old news here, but really, hard to keep up with ROB FORD distractions all the time.

Anyway, as many of you know, there was a gathering of about 500 last week to talk about the role of transit in the economy. This was largely organized by TransLink and pushed forward by Mayor Dianne Watts, as far as I can tell. But they did get some sponsorships to cover the cost, including from the New Car Dealers Association, which you have to admit was ballsy and imaginative of them.

At any rate, everyone made strong points about the role that good transit plays in the economy. There was a bit of a weird digression at one point, where it looked like a fight was going to break out between people arguing over whether Vancouver has a knowledge-based economy or whether it has a resource-based one. UBC dean emeritus Michael Goldberg finessed that one by pointing out that the knowledge workers needed for the resource economy (accountants, lawyers, engineers) by and large operate out of Vancouver and, as they go (or don’t, stuck in traffic), so goes the resource economy.

There was some bashing of neighbourhood group NIMBYism by same Michael Goldberg, who basically said they are standing in the way of progress and sometimes political leaders need to not pay attention — just the message I’m sure you all wanted Gregor to hear.

This debate over the transit referendum is going to take more weird turns like this, I think, before it’s over. Here’s my story from the day. (And pasted below, as always)


Politicians and business leaders are flashing a giant warning sign to the province: Figure out a way to pay for a massive transit expansion in the Vancouver region or watch the economy in B.C. get strangled.

With a referendum on transit finance looming, mayors and others at a special conference on Thursday hammered home the message that traffic jams are already hurting the region. And another million people are expected in the region over the next 30 years.

“Congestion costs us $1.5-billion annually,” Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts said. “If we expect to compete on a global level, we need to get our ducks in a row. It is key and crucial that we look at this beyond the election cycle.”

The Lower Mainland is facing a referendum on transit financing next year, after Premier Christy Clark announced during her election campaign that voters should get to decide how to fund the region’s billion-dollar-a-year transit agency.

No one knows yet exactly what question will be on the referendum, what date it will be held on, and who will pay for it.

A negative answer on that referendum would be “disastrous,” Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said. Without directly criticizing the Premier, speaker after speaker at the day-long conference, attended by about 500, made the point that a poor transit system isn’t just a minor inconvenience for a few service workers.

“Knowledge is our future economy,” said Michael Goldberg, a professor emeritus of business at the University of British Columbia. “You have to allow those people to get easily from one meeting to another. If people spend lots of time in congestion, it’s a huge deadweight drag on the economy.”

Mr. Goldberg said that affects all of B.C.

“As this region goes, so goes the province. The hinterland cannot develop with a congested, inefficient Vancouver. Our resources, we only get them out of huge ground because of human capital here.”

A show of hands at the conference indicated only a half-dozen people thought the referendum would produce a positive result.

But one former CEO of TransLink, the regional transportation agency, said he thinks Vancouver has reason for optimism about eventual success.

Tom Prendergast, who left four years ago to run New York’s transit authority, said it always takes two or three passes to get to a solution in the conversation all cities are having about how to pay for transit.

“When you have difficult funding issues, very rarely are they resolved on the first attempt,” Mr. Prendergast said. He left after a three-year stint that ended with a massive provincial stall on efforts by regional mayors to get a new revenue source to pay for a big phase of transit expansions.

In New York, the city gets a significant amount of money for the whole transportation system through an extensive set of road and bridge tolls. As well, it is starting to get money from real-estate development along new transit lines.

Mr. Prendergast said Vancouver has some unique conditions that make it a little harder to reach an agreement.

The region has 23 municipalities, compared with only 10 jurisdictions in New York.

“The challenge is making sure you appeal to each and every one.”

The region is also one of the largest transit-service areas on the continent, with only 2.5 million people spread out over almost 3,000 square kilometres. That makes improvements more expensive.

But Mr. Prendergast said Vancouver also has an advantage, which is that regional leaders are very energetic about supporting transit and the financing for it.

That was in evidence at the conference, where there wasn’t a single critic arguing against transit expansion.

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