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Fighting for Justice in Transit: Why You Should Vote Yes in the Transit Referendum

The Metro Vancouver referendum on whether or not to raise the PST by 0.5% to fund transit investments is not going well. Hijacked by activists from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, youth, seniors, low-income people, and other major transit-user demographics have been left out, forgotten, or actively rebuffed from the conversation around transit. The proposal, created by the twenty-one mayors who represented Metro Vancouver on Translink’s executive board, promises not only to benefit the region, but to ensure mobility in light of the expected growth of 1-million new residents by 2040.

Blithely put, selling new taxes is hard. It can be done, but it takes a lot of work. Young people in Vancouver, as the major beneficiaries of this proposal, may feel up against the wall right now, but we shouldn’t lose hope. Political battles like this have been won before.

Take Vancouver, 1967: a haphazard coalition of people, variously termed hippies, no-goodnicks, and losers, got together and opposed the creation of a highway that would have run right through the middle of downtown Vancouver. People called their actions outrageous, said they were disturbers of the peace, and said they were standing in the way of people’s freedom (and its vessel, the car). But they didn’t relent. They had a vision: one that went against the endless expansion of freeways through the hearts of cities and the dispossession that followed. They saw that vision through.

Fast-forward fifty years and Vancouver is upheld around the world for being one of the few major North American cities to have resisted the dogma of the 1960s and 1970s that you had to have more cars to be successful. In many respects, this has been a boon. While the Downtown Eastside remains isolated from city services and perennially under threat, the impacts of the freeway would probably have been even more disastrous for the communities there. Many young people are justifiably unmoved by Vancouver topping any number of ‘livability’ indexes, or the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan, or even Mayor Robertson’s on-going promise of ‘ending’ homelessness in the city (for a critique read this article). The constant refrain of Vancouver’s innate and all-encompassing greatness feels false, even insulting, in the face of suffering that exists right in front of us.

To many folks, the Metro Vancouver transit vote evokes one of two responses: either some smile of glib satisfaction with the current state of affairs, or a grimace of pain, knowing what might come for the city and region’s most disadvantaged people. I think for many people, the possibility of disaster lurks at the edge of both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’

This perspective is understandable, but it doesn’t fully engage with the political reality that young people in Vancouver currently face.

There are two reasons why people are opposing the 0.5% raise in the PST that is proposed in this vote: either they dislike Translink and its unresponsive management structure, or they worry about the added tax burden placed on the region’s most vulnerable people.

To start first with the easier of the two, when we’re talking about taxation we have to recognise that this was considered against a range of options and on the basis of what would raise the money and be politically achievable. The Mayors’ Council on Transportation considered a number of approaches before settling on the PST, including vehicle registration fees, mobility pricing (i.e., pay-per kilometre travelling), and increasing the carbon tax in Metro Vancouver. While ideally taxes would not be raised on low-income earners, it was felt that it was the least punitive way of collecting money for transit, since it does not cover the basic essentials that people must purchase, and does not penalize those who cannot afford to live close to where they work (as paying per kilometre would).

While the numbers argument for this vote shakes out fairly easily, the question of Translink’s accountability is a harder one to wrestle with. It’s easy to say that the organisation is broken, or has the wrong people working for it, but harder to articulate a vision of how to fix it. The larger issue is, as Gary Mason put it wonderfully last week, that Translink is the victim of a broken governance model. The Liberal government removed the local representation on the board, they forced the Compass pass system (to fight fare-loss) on the agency, and they’re the ones who have tried to keep the agency simultaneously under their control, yet at arm’s length. They’re the ones who would sooner spend billions on new, unneeded commuter bridges than invest in the modes which most meaningfully support the people struggling most in the region.

But identifying that Translink has problems doesn’t get us much further towards fixing them. For many folks voting no, this is just fine for them. They don’t take transit, so they don’t care.

But as young people, we do.

A successful ‘yes’ vote in this referendum means that the province is going to have to play ball with the mayors. They’re imperfect political actors, as everyone is, but they’re very much at the whim of local political forces: within a year of the citizens raising the banner against the freeways in 1967, an entirely new force of councillors, called The Electors Action Movement (TEAM), had forced their way into Vancouver City Hall. Here in Vancouver, as throughout the region, there are strong progressive forces ready to push mayors further. Raising the PST is an investment in the future – not just in the physical structure of the city, but in a progressive political future. With the region’s mayors now on the political hook for having secured this new funding for transit, they can make considerable demands on the province in terms of the structure of Translink; in turn, the people of the region can ask a great deal more of them.

Politics is about hard choices and this referendum is absolutely one of them. We have to see this referendum as an opportunity, not an end point. To achieve the meaningful change that we need, we need to bite the bullet here and recognise that this is a strategic opportunity to make major inroads towards a more liveable, just region.

George P.R. Benson is a first-year Masters Candidate at the School of Community and Regional Planning.