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A response to Laila Yuile’s ‘Why I am voting No’ post

Laila Yuile is a blogger and contributor to 24hrs Vancouver. She wrote a post explaining why she will be voting ‘no’ in the upcoming Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite.

I’m writing this as a response to Ms. Yuile in hopes of persuading her to think about changing her mind and voting ‘yes’. I also hope that this response will persuade some people who are leaning ‘no’ into thinking about voting ‘yes’.

First and foremost, a sales tax increase is a punitive, regressive form of taxation.

I absolutely agree. Sales taxes unfairly punish those who are living in or just above poverty the most. They definitely are regressive. And in BC, in 2011 the poorest 10% paid roughly 11% of their income to sales and commodity taxes (source) while the richest 10% paid roughly 3% of their income. That’s not fair for people making lower-than-average income.

That said, the vast majority of the improvements that will be funded by the 0.5% increase will be to Metro Vancouver’s transit system. Lower-income people are more likely to use transit (source: “The median household income of public transit users is $39,000 while for the population as a whole it is $44,389.”). The Surrey Poverty Reduction Coalition states “public transit can reduce transportation costs for Surrey residents with a three-zone transit pass costing significantly less than owning and operating a vehicle.” Without that viable public transit in place, these savings cannot be made. The SPRC is backing the ‘yes’ side for exactly that reason.

There can also be ways to mitigate the regressive nature of sales taxes. In BC, this is partially done by not taxing the vast majority of essential items. Food and housing are major expenses, and these are not taxed under the PST. There is a PST credit for low-income households, and with enough political pressure this could be increased. Seattle is lowering fares for low-income households, which is something that could be done in Metro Vancouver by extending the U-Pass system to lower-income households.

In the end, there are absolutely no guarantees to anything but paying more sales tax- if the province honours the results of a YES majority.

That’s true. This money could go into a general revenue fund. However, that would be political suicide for the BC Liberal party. They’ve set this referendum up for the sole intention of funding TransLink’s expansion plans. And yes, they could very well say that they’re not going to put the 0.5% increase in place even if Metro Vancouver votes 100% ‘yes’. But again, that would be political suicide. There are 24 Liberal MLAs in Metro Vancouver. If the provincial government were to say “sorry, we know you voted ‘yes’ but we’re not raising taxes”, those 24 Liberal MLAs just got thrown under the bus. The plebiscite is non-binding, yes, but only in the strictest sense of the term.

Why does the ballot not include independent audits and public reporting?

It does: “Revenues and expenditures would be subject to annual independent audits and public reporting.” Further, Jimmy Pattison will be overseeing the expenditures, heading up a “blue ribbon public accountability committee.”

Why so vague on the specifics of the projects?

This is because the ballot is one piece of paper. The specifics are available on the Mayors’ Council website. There’s 48 pages of specifics, including when each portion of the plan will be implemented and how much each will cost, right down to the individual proposed B-Line routes.

We haven’t even gotten into the fact that this tax increase doesn’t fund the entire cost of any of these projects, and neither the provincial or federal government has committed to dedicating those funds… but trust us they say. Trust us…

Stephen Harper has said that infrastructure money is available from the federal government. However, this money is only available if local money is available as well. Without the money raised from the 0.5% increase, we can guarantee that there will be no federal funds. Remember, they’re typically called “matching funds”, and they’re pretty much like “matching donations” in fundraising campaigns — you need to put the money up first before they’ll be matched.

There is no Plan B.

Fair enough, given this plan is already Plan C. Plan A would have been “province properly funds transit in Metro Vancouver.” Plan B was “Mayorss’ Council proposes carbon tax increase and mobility pricing”, which they did, but that was rejected by the province. So now we’re with Plan C.

Research shows in other cities and countries, that improved transit alone doesn’t cut congestion without road pricing.

Agreed! And the Mayors’ Council agrees too! If you look on Page 36 of their vision document you’ll see that “the Mayors’ Council is committed to implementing time-and-distance based mobility pricing on the road network as an efficient, fair and sustainable method of helping to pay for the transportation system.” This is a longer-term goal though, because “developing and implementing a system that meets the needs of this region and province will likely take five to eight years.” Unfortunately the Broadway corridor can’t wait five to eight years. Unfortunately the Pattullo Bridge can’t wait five to eight years. Unfortunately communities in Surrey can’t wait five to eight years for adequate bus service.

Improving transit isn’t going to improve congestion on its own, you’re absolutely right. It isn’t a cure-all. But it will help, at least a little, unlike not improving transit. Like you say, “transit improvements alone do little to ease congestion, but that paired with road pricing as a dis-incentive to drivers, it will have an impact.” Does that mean that we need to roll out transit improvements and road pricing at the same time, or can we improve our transit first and have a small impact on congestion, then introduce road pricing later to further improve congestion?

As an aside, the mayors point out that road pricing will help shift funding away from current sources of TransLink funding, particularly the fuel sales tax. With road pricing generating $250 million a year, it could easily replace the 0.5% increase at the end of its ten-year plan (or even earlier, depending on how quickly they can get road pricing up and running).

I’ve had enough of the premier and our mayors playing with people’s lives… and livelihoods.

I think the provincial government should be the biggest target of your scorn. They could very easily approve the mayors’ plan. Instead they opened us up to this divisive plebiscite that pits one city against another. Yes, you’re pissed off. I’m pissed off. We shouldn’t even be having this discussion. The provincial government should do what it was elected to do: govern. The mayors are caught in this as well because they’re relatively powerless. The only thing they can do is propose plans to the province.

Frankly I’m very tired of people who live,work and play in Vancouver telling me how this plan will benefit me, when they haven’t even been out to this part of Surrey! There is a complete disconnect. One fellow I know recently took a planning bus tour in Surrey and was shocked to discover how much sprawl planning has occurred.

I grew up in Surrey (Clayton, to be exact). Would I move back? No. Why? Because the transit there sucks and I don’t want to be forced to own a car. Do you enjoy being forced to own a car just because of where you live? It doesn’t sound like it.

With improved transit in Surrey (and I’m not just talking about the LRT, I’m talking more about actual bus routes) more people in Surrey will have another option. Even if you never have to cross a bridge to get to work, transit should be an option for you regardless of what side of the Fraser you live on. Right now that’s an option north of the Fraser, but it isn’t south of the Fraser. With the funding in place from a ‘yes’ vote, leaving the car at home becomes an option. With a ‘no’ vote, there’s no option.

This is probably going to be a crappy analogy, but compare it to the healthcare systems in Canada and the US. The US’s healthcare system sucks (I know, I lived there for eight years). Canada’s is way better. As Canadians we’re pretty smug about it, and can’t understand why Americans got so up-in-arms about their Affordable Care Act. “You don’t know how good it will be!” we said. “Why are you cutting off your nose to spite your face?” when some people tried to get rid of it.

Vancouver has excellent transit (this is the Canadian side of the healthcare analogy). Surrey’s is crappy (this is the American side). When people in Vancouver see people in Surrey saying they’re going to vote ‘no’, they’re dumbfounded. “Why wouldn’t you want to have good transit? It’s actually quite nice!”

Surrey is growing, and growing fast. It’ll soon be BC’s largest city. And Surrey doesn’t want to improve its transit to catch up to Vancouver’s because… Vancouverites are smug?

Ms. Yuile, I hope that since you wrote your post, some of your questions have been answered. A lot has changed in the month since you wrote it, and I hope that you reconsider your position and vote ‘yes’.

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