Commentary: TransLink referendum: be careful what you promise

by Dermod Travis,


TransLink – everyone’s favourite whipping boy in the Lower Mainland – is about to be put to the electoral test and it promises not to be pretty.

Far from being the favourite kid on the block, the fate of TransLink’s future funding will be decided in the midst of the introduction of the Compass card and Lower Mainland residents know full well how that initiative has been going as of late. It doesn’t bode well for the vote.

Despite this, Premier Christy Clark promised that a referendum would be held on Translink’s funding needs in last May’s provincial election and that’s what Lower Mainland residents are going to get, even though the B.C. government risks opening the proverbial Pandora’s box with Clark’s pledge.

To get a sense of just how much of a gamble that the B.C. government is taking on this one: look no further than to our neighbours to the south who are among the world’s most experienced with tax initiatives at the ballot box.

Since 2000, the Washington, DC-based Center for Transportation Excellence has tracked all U.S. Local Option Transportation Tax (LOTT) ballot measures that include a transit component.

In an academic paper – Taxing for Transit: An Exploratory Analysis of Local Option Transportation Taxes – those ballot measures were analyzed. The paper focused strictly on broad-based dedicated transportation taxes and excluded other ballot initiatives such as anti-tolling and bond measures, vehicle user fees, and measures that were little more than glorified popular opinion surveys.

From 2000 to 2011 there were 274 ballot measures that met the test. Eighty-two of those referendums passed, less than one in three. Seventy per cent failed.

Another study – Transit referendums and Funding Options: Bonds Versus Taxes – examined 111 transit referendums held in the United States between 1999 and 2007. The results were only modestly more encouraging. Fifty-five per cent of the ballot measures in that study passed voter muster.

Not surprisingly, though, that total was skewed by referendums where voters approved bond initiatives knowing full well they were passing the buck on to future generations over initiatives that sought tax increases in the here and now.

Even still, does the B.C. government really want to place a bet on TransLink’s future funding with odds that are little better than those of flipping a coin?

Keep in mind that a lot rests on the question.

Successful transit referendums in the U.S. had a few things in common: finite time frames, specific project and expenditure plans, more local control of transportation investment decisions, inclusion of citizen oversight committees, and whether it was a bond or tax initiative.

This past week, Transportation minister Todd Stone on the Voice of B.C. set out six conditions for a winning referendum. It’s fair to say the province is close to meeting one of them: timing.

Less than a year out, no one knows what the referendum question will be, who will approve it and how the results will be interpreted.

Will the final question take a thumbs up or down approach or will it ask voters to choose the least nasty remedy out of a medicine cabinet full of distasteful options?

What about the risk of voters in 20 plus municipalities being played off against each other? Will Surrey vote yes if they perceive that rapid transit needs in their community will take a back seat to a West Broadway Sky Train extension in Vancouver? What legitimacy will the vote have if a majority of communities vote no, but a majority of voters vote yes?

Voter turnouts in B.C. local elections are also notoriously low. And if turnout in the 2014 local elections is anything comparable to the results last time out, it’s possible that one out of three voters could set tax policy for three out of three ratepayers.

And it’s not just low turnout, but who turns out that should raise some flags in Victoria. Transit users may be less likely to vote in a municipal election than those who rely on a car as their primary mode of transportation.

At the end of the day, holding TransLink’s management to account and spiting the agency at the ballot box are two distinct exercises. One of them may not be so wise.

There’s a real difference between using referendums to set tax policy and using them to overturn an unpopular tax. B.C. has experience with one and it seems – despite significant opposition in the Lower Mainland – it’s about to have experience with another.

No pressure though: a region’s economic well-being is only resting on the result.


Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.