Monday to Friday, Carolyne Tran spends four hours on transit. A second-year Applied Sciences student at UBC, Tran wakes up in Surrey, runs to catch her bus to King George station, listens to music on the Skytrain to Vancouver, and then hops on the 99 B-line bus. If she misses her first bus, she has to wait another 30 minutes for the next bus.
“Sometimes the bus comes a couple minutes early. So even if you come on time, if it comes two minutes early, you miss class,” said Tran.
According to the Mayors’ Council, lost productivity is part of the $1 billion cost to the regional Vancouver economy. It’s one of their main arguments for their proposed $7.5 billion transportation plan, which includes the expansion of light rail in Surrey and Langley, a Millenium line extension from VCC-Clark to Arbutus street and improved bus service that includes 11 new B-line routes. On March 26, ballots will be mailed out to Metro Vancouver residents who will vote on one question: do you support a 0.5 per cent increase to the Provincial Sales Tax in Metro Vancouver, dedicated to the Mayors’ Transportation and Transit Plan, with independent audits and public reporting.
While it’s phrased as a simple yes/no question, the referendum has spawned a lot of debates.
One contentious topic is the use of a plebiscite to decide on transportation projects. Although there have been many transportation referendums in the U.S., notably in Seattle and San Francisco, referendums are less common in Canada. This transportation and sales tax referendum is the first of its kind in Canada, and was part of Christy Clark’s election platform back in 2013.
Robin Lindsey, Sauder prof and CN chair in Transportation and International Logistics, said that time will tell whether voters will support the referendum.
“I am skeptical,” said Lindsey. “The referendum that’s about to start is so complicated. Given the highly imperfect situation that the Mayors’ Council is facing, they came up with a reasonable solution.”
Still, critics such as Jordan Bateman from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation have argued that increasing the sales tax will be particularly tough on small businesses and might not be managed efficient by TransLink.
But along with various labour, business, environmental and student groups across the province that form the Better Transit and Transportation Coalition (BTCC), both the AMS and UBC’s President Arvind Gupta have expressed support for the transit referendum and urged students to vote yes.
BTCC also points out that the tax will affect people from different income groups differently, with most students expected to pay only $30 – $50 per year.
Despite her long transit times, Tran is still undecided on how she will vote in the referendum. She said that while the taxes will help students, the higher sales tax might put a burden on Lower Mainlanders.
“For students, it’s probably really beneficial, but for the rest of the Lower Mainland it might not be as helpful because people are going to be taxed for it,” said Tran.
Despite BTTC’s campaign in favour of the referendum, it seems that Metro Vancouver residents are still not completely won over by the plan. Recent polls indicate that 53 per cent of adults are inclined to vote no, with voters finding issues with TransLink, the use of the sales tax, the referendum or the transit plan itself.
At the same time, Lindsey said that the proposal was better than nothing at all given Vancouver’s growing population.
“The sales tax may not be the best way to fund that package, [the transit plan] is wholly better than nothing or the status quo,” said Lindsey.