I have a letter on The Vancouver Sun’s website (online only, it would appear) replying to a ridiculous op-ed piece that blames the high cost of housing on “mass immigration.” My response is restrained in both tone and word count, but suffice it to say I disagree with the op-ed writer’s argument. To read my letter, click here and scroll down to the second entry, under the heading “Massive investment in affordable housing needed.”
Well, anybody could have called this one.
According to a new survey by Insights West, 53 per cent of residents plan to vote No in the upcoming 2015 Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite. Only 38 per cent say they will vote Yes to the proposed half-percentage-point sales tax increase to help fund more buses, new rapid transit lines, improved walking and cycling networks, road and bridge upgrades, and more.
The once mighty Yes campaign’s decline is a regrettable development, but no one can honestly claim to be surprised. Though referendums can be useful exercises, they are out of place on matters such as public transit where the impacts of present-day decisions are borne in large part by future generations. Voters risk falling victim to the myopic lullabies of anti-tax zealots and their assorted useful idiots. Provincial and municipal representatives would have done well simply to sit down together and hammer out a fair cost-sharing arrangement.
But it’s too late for that now. For better or for worse, the provincial Liberals made a cheap pledge during an election which everyone expected them to lose, and we’re stuck with this plebiscite as a result. Mail-in ballots are on their way next month. It is therefore crucial, for reasons of social and environmental justice, that we do all we can to beat the odds and secure a win for the Yes side.
Is TransLink the problem?
So why, one might ask, is the delightfully named “Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax” proving so unpopular? Apart from the reflexive mantra of “we hate taxes,” two primary reasons come to the fore. The first is the reputed wastefulness and unaccountability of TransLink, Metro Vancouver’s regional transportation authority.
It is true that the organization suffers a democratic deficit, a convoluted governance structure, and bewildering levels of executive compensation. Moreover, the roll-out of the new Compass fare card system has been disastrous, and recent high-profile service shutdowns on the SkyTrain have not made matters any easier.
It is a mystery, however, why anyone would believe that voting No could solve these problems. High-level decision-makers and bureaucrats are not “punished” when denied the ability to implement sensible policies. They are neither fired nor forced to take pay cuts. On the contrary, the only effect is to punish the general public by worsening our transit system’s dysfunctionality in a time of rapid population growth. The poor in particular would suffer through this act of sabotage to one of the cheapest means of getting around. All this in addition to further increases in air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and traffic congestion.
It is also worth noting that while any waste is indefensible — public bodies must always strive to improve their efficiency — the items commonly cited as examples of TransLink’s storied wastefulness add up to a mere fraction of one per cent of its annual expenditures. In other words, the vast majority of the organization’s budget goes to the vital public services we rely upon it to provide. So let’s keep matters in perspective, shall we?
Are sales taxes the problem?
A second concern for some segments of the No team is the kind of taxation being considered. Sales taxes, they argue, are regressive, in that they disproportionately impact people with low incomes. If we are to expand public transit services, we should try to do so by means of more progressive alternatives.
So far so good. Indeed, the options are limitless if we allow our imaginations to run wild.
In place of a regional sales tax, perhaps transfers from higher levels of government, which are already anticipated to defray the bulk of the costs, could cover every last dime of transit funding. Personal and corporate income taxes could be raised. So too could the provincial carbon tax, for although it is just as regressive as a sales tax (all else being equal), it at least adheres to the polluter pays principle.
The problem is that not one of these idyllic alternatives is on the table, nor will they magically become so if residents vote No. We are not faced with a choice between several different mechanisms by which to pay for needed transit investments; we are faced with a choice between making those investments and not making them.
A sales tax boost may not be perfect, but as far as tax hikes go, 0.5 per cent is fairly small — amounting to an average of 35 cents per household per day, according to the Yes campaign (or about twice that by the No side’s reckoning). And unlike other sales tax proposals, such as our dearly departed HST, this one is earmarked almost entirely towards public transit, an indisputably progressive cause which benefits people with low incomes and helps to prevent climate destruction.
So what exactly is the problem, Metro Vancouver? Will we succumb, as suggested by the latest poll, to the cynical panderings of “starve the beast” fanatics? Or will we defy the prognosticators and rise to the occasion?
This blogger is not optimistic, but he hopes to be proven wrong.
This post appears on rabble.ca.
Dear Janet Fraser,
First of all, let me start by congratulating you on your school board election victory this past Saturday. I voted for you enthusiastically, as I did your running mate Mischa Oak and the rest of the Green Party team on the city council and park board slates. It is truly gratifying to see a Greenie set to hold the balance of power on one of Vancouver’s three elected municipal bodies.
Which brings me to my main reason for writing today. School board is scheduled to select a chairperson on December 8. I don’t know what direction you happen to be leaning at the moment, but I would like to respectfully urge you — barring any unforeseen eventualities — to vote to reappoint Vision Vancouver’s Patti Bacchus.
Vision does not by any means deserve unconditional support, and I fully expect you will assess each issue before the board on a case-by-case basis according to its merits. I also happen to agree with the Green Party position that elected bodies in general function better when no single party is in control.
But compared to Vision’s often poor performance on council and parks, on school board the party has for the most part done a commendable job. Under Bacchus’s leadership, the board has lobbied relentlessly for increased provincial funding, made public schools more welcoming to LGBT students, and stood up against Chevron’s sinister efforts to buy influence.
None of this is to suggest that there is no room for improvement. There always is. But I for one — again, barring exceptional circumstances — have no desire to see the school board take a giant leap backwards under an NPA chair. Please consider using your new status as swing vote to build upon, and add a tinge of green to, Vision’s many accomplishments on education.
Thanks for taking the time to read over my thoughts, and congratulations once again on your victory.
David Taub Bancroft
With a week and a half to go before voting day in municipalities across British Columbia, the campaign here in Vancouver seems to have devolved into a veritable hatefest against two-term mayor and eccentric juice magnate Gregor Robertson.
There is nothing surprising about that. Incumbents (a.k.a. the sinister hands currently at the controls of Big Government) typically draw vitriol like no others during election season. Yet for all the negative attention received by the mayor and his Vision Vancouver party at all-candidates meetings and in the opinion pages, for all the foaming at the mouth over towers and bike lanes and the dearth of transparency at city hall, polls show the man not-so-affectionately dubbed “Mayor Moonbeam” set to sail comfortably into a third straight term in office. His party too is predicted to win a (slightly reduced) majority on council, as it portrays itself as the only realistic alternative to the big bad Non-Partisan Association (NPA), Vancouver’s traditionally dominant party of centre-right overlords.
Indeed, Vision seems well on its way to becoming Vancouver’s new “natural governing party.” All the more reason, in this blogger’s opinion, to honestly evaluate its strengths and weaknesses.
Let’s start with the party’s “green” file. For the past six years, the Vision-dominated council has alienated many with an aggressive pursuit of cycling infrastructure, as part of its goal of making Vancouver the world’s greenest city by 2020. While we may quibble over this or that detail, this or that choice for where to locate a given bike lane, the need to encourage safe and convenient alternatives to car use is imperative from an environmental standpoint.
Don’t be fooled by hyperbolic warnings of drivers and cyclists battling it out for supremacy on city roads. There may be some griping, but most people are willing to live and let live. To promote cycling during an era of climate change is simply common sense.
Vision also deserves credit for being the party most forcefully in favour of a Broadway subway, making the mayor and his team, in concert with other municipalities (all of which are at least partly on board), well placed to negotiate with higher levels of government. As repeated ad nauseum over the campaign, the Broadway corridor is the busiest bus route in North America (defined as Canada and the United States). While a hypothetical light rail line might release some of this pressure and could certainly be built on the cheap, the subway option would almost certainly have greater carrying capacity.
The goal is to move the maximum number of people in the least amount of time, not just in response to current needs, but in anticipation of future needs as well. Vancouver’s transit planners spend too much time playing catch-up. What we desperately need is to get out in front of the demographic trends.
Finally, Vision is steadfastly opposed to such fossil fuel projects as coal export terminals and the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion. These matters, strictly speaking, are not subject to local jurisdiction. But given Vancouver’s geographic and economic placement, our civic government undoubtedly has influence, should it choose to exercise it. Environmentalists certainly appreciate having the province’s largest city on their side.
Truly, Vision’s Achilles’ heel is Vancouver’s housing affordability crisis.
By some measures, Metro Vancouver is the second least affordable housing market on the planet. Not all the blame for this unpleasant fact can be laid at the feet of the current mayor and council, but neither can it be said that rectifying the problem has been a major priority during Vision’s first two terms.
Perhaps the most unconscionable symptom of this growing crisis is the recent spike in the city’s homeless population, flying in the face of Robertson’s 2011 pledge to eliminate street homelessness by 2015. One wonders, in light of these results, if the city’s efforts to evict tent city protesters from Oppenheimer Park last month amounted to little more than a PR-conscious move to sweep the problem under the proverbial rug.
The condos and high-rises largely pursued under Vision’s watch rarely yield true affordability — or, for that matter, environmental sustainability. Towers are notoriously energy inefficient building forms, and sprawl is only exacerbated when Vancouverites, pushed out of their neighbourhoods in the face of skyrocketing costs of living, flock to the suburbs in search of greater affordability.
Vision Vancouver seems to be doing a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong. A few of its more green-tinged candidates could probably use another kick at the electoral can, but the party as a whole does not deserve a majority. Conscientious voters would do well to fill out the rest of their ballots with some of the more progressive alternatives.
Staking out a position to Vision’s left, the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), from which Vision split off in 2005 after a painful bout of infighting, nearly fell apart once again over the last year. The resulting offshoots this time are new parties OneCity Vancouver and the Public Education Project.
Lefties will be lefties, I suppose. (It’s the Spanish Civil War all over again!)
But as tempting as it may be to punish a party so recently beset by internal disarray — and as prone as Vancouver voters have always been to do just that — the primary focus during an election must be on the issues themselves, not on the headline-grabbing sideshows. And it is on the issues where COPE truly shines.
Deriding both Vision and the NPA as “developer-funded parties,” COPE promises to create a Vancouver Housing Authority, to build and preserve publicly owned social housing, to establish rent controls, to put in place special taxes on vacant and luxury properties, to end renovictions, to impose a $15 per hour municipal minimum wage, to introduce a $30 per month universal transit pass for all Vancouver residents, and to make Vancouver a “Sanctuary City” for non-status migrants.
Some of these policies would be difficult, if not impossible, for Vancouver to implement on its own, but they are laudable aspirations. COPE is right to push the limits of municipal jurisdiction as a means of elevating its negotiating position with higher levels of government.
As a result of the party’s equity policy, a majority of COPE candidates are women, and First Nations representation is required on each of its three slates. Moreover, in the person of mayoral candidate Meena Wong, Vancouver voters now have a chance to elect their first female and Chinese Canadian mayor. Visible “minorities” make up roughly half the city’s population, as do women, yet both both groups are chronically underrepresented in government. For Wong to occupy the mayor’s chair would be a breath of fresh air in more ways than one.
The Vancouver Greens, though showing signs of beginning to outgrow their “perpetual underdog” status, are not running a mayoral candidate. Instead, they choose to concentrate on their minority slates for council, parks, and schools, professing as a matter of principle that no one party should control a majority of seats. With at least one poll, however, suggesting they are within striking distance of supplanting the NPA as the second party on council, they may well choose to revisit this policy come next election.
The Greens share more than a few platform points with COPE, especially on housing. They vow to work against renovictions, to protect existing low-cost housing, to adopt the standard definition of “affordability” as constituting no more than 30 per cent of gross income, and to consider introducing taxes on vacant and luxury properties. They also plan to strengthen the new Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency (which Vision appropriated in watered-down form from COPE), and they refuse to accept campaign donations from developers.
On planning and density issues, the Greens push for increased community engagement, on both a neighbourhood and a citywide basis, in contrast to what they perceive as Vision Vancouver’s top-down approach. They seem to favour preserving neighbourhood character, encouraging wood-frame construction, modestly increasing the number of units allowed on single-family lots, and building low-rise developments on a more evenly distributed basis, rather than pockets of towers. They would fund public transit from revenue sources other than development levies, so as to diminish the incentive for excessive density.
Like Vision, the Greens emphasize the importance of walking, cycling, and transit, but they consider Vision’s take on bike lanes a bit ad hoc, and advocate an end run to completing the city’s cycling network. They propose that Vancouver produce more of its own energy and food, while banning the use of GMOs.
Incumbent Green councillor Adriane Carr seems to have widely impressed during her first term at city hall, and she is considered a shoo-in for re-election. It would be nice to see her bring back a couple of colleagues under the Green banner.
Parks and Schools
The Vision-dominated Park Board and School Board both deserve praise for introducing broadly trans-inclusive policies during the last term. Also, the School Board is standing strong against the temptation of corporate funding from Chevron, which blights many other school districts in the region.
It bears mentioning, however, that parks underwent significant budget cuts under Vision’s tenure. And while the decision by Vision commissioners to prohibit the breeding of dolphins and whales at the Vancouver Aquarium is a well-intentioned step in the right direction, an all-out ban on cetacean captivity would send a much clearer message. Further, let us not forget the shameful way in which the party pressured popular candidate Trish Kelly to step down in response to a jokey monologue she performed on masturbation eight years ago.
While Vancouver’s at-large electoral system tends to produce wildly disproportionate results, it also offers voters the chance to mix it up by selecting candidates from across multiple parties. What follows are the selections of yours truly.
- Meena Wong (COPE)
- Audrey Siegl (COPE)
- Niki Sharma (Vision)
- Andrea Reimer (Vision)
- Wilson Munoz (COPE)
- Pete Fry (Green)
- Sid Chow Tan (COPE)
- Adriane Carr (Green)
- Cleta Brown (Green)
- Lisa Barrett (COPE)
- RJ Aquino (OneCity)
- Michael Wiebe (Green)
- Anita Romaniuk (COPE)
- Imtiaz Popat (COPE)
- Stuart Mackinnon (Green)
- Trevor Loke (Vision)
- Urooba Jamal (COPE)
- Jamie Lee Hamilton (IDEA)
- Allan Wong (Vision)
- Ilana Shecter (COPE)
- Mischa Oak (Green)
- Kombii Nanjalah (COPE)
- Janet Fraser (Green)
- Diana Day (COPE)
- Ken Clement (Vision)
- Jane Bouey (Public Education Project)
- Patti Bacchus (Vision)
Capital Plan Borrowing Questions 1, 2, and 3:
- Yes, Yes, and Yes
Election day is November 15th. Advance voting is already underway here in Vancouver and continues through the 12th. All the information you need to take part can be found on the city’s website. In 2011, barely one-third of registered voters turned out. Surely we need to do better this time.
Get out there and vote!
Please, dear readers, take a gander at today’s Globe and Mail for a letter I wrote urging the establishment of recall at the municipal level of government. For the record, I also favour such a mechanism at the provincial and federal levels, but in this particular case, I was responding to an op-ed by Preston Manning that argued for municipal “responsible government,” which I consider to be the wrong approach.
My letter is fourth from the top.
For all my political ideals and self-conceptualizations, I cannot for the life of me seem to get myself more than superficially interested in the scandals that plague the holders of public office. The Rob Ford crack video hubbub is a case in point.
Yes, it is funny. Yes, there is hardly a politico more deserving of being knocked down a peg. And now, with even Ford’s brother being brought in on the fun with allegations of a drug dealing past, the entire country seems to be locked in the grips of an overpowering case of SchadenFord (no, I am not the first to think that one up).
Yet there is something disturbing in the idea that for all the regressive initiatives embraced by Ford during his two-and-a-half years as Toronto Mayor — for all his ill-advised crusades against labour, cyclists, libraries, and transit — it is the as yet unproven crack video, surely the least of his transgressions, that now threatens to do him in.
A similar point can be made about the Senate expenses scandal currently underway in Ottawa. True, this one is different from the crack case insofar as it involves the misuse of public funds, but if we focus solely on the “bad apples” like Wallin and Duffy and Harb and Brazeau, then we lose sight of the wider issue, namely the culture of entitlement inherent in an unelected upper chamber that makes the cultivation of such bad apples practically inevitable. The NDP is taking the enlightened position with respect to this scandal — criticizing the individuals involved, yes, but also connecting them to something more profound, more systemic, taking the opportunity to renew its longstanding call to abolish the Senate entirely.
And that, precisely, is what’s missing from most scandalmongering, defined as it is by an overemphasis on personalities and an underemphasis on institutions. The Fords and the Duffys of the world, entertaining though they are, do not affect us nearly as deeply as the offices they hold and the policies they implement. Of course those who do wrong deserve to be punished, but the news coverage generated by these individual wrongdoings are completely out of proportion to their true impacts.
We’d do a lot better focusing on what really matters.
This post appears on rabble.ca.
If we as a planet are going to avoid passing over the two-degree threshold to runaway climate change, we are going to have to start rationing greenhouse gas emissions. Efficiency gains in transportation will inevitably need to be part of that project. Put another way, emissions per person per kilometre will have to go down, which means a dramatic expansion in public transit infrastructure.
Unfortunately, as is so often the case in the unchanging climate of public sector cost-cutting, the chief obstacle is the issue of funding. But noble attempts to solve this quandary abound. Here in the Metro Vancouver region, the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation, one of the governing bodies of TransLink, has written BC Transportation Minister Mary Polak with a series of proposals.
Of the five options put forward, the one generating the most news coverage is the suggestion of a 0.5 percent regional sales tax. I do not usually like sales taxes, as they are notoriously regressive, but considering the relatively small size of the tax, the estimated yield of $250 million per year, and the undeniable progressiveness of what it would go to fund, I have to admit the idea is tempting.
Its major problem, or at least limitation, is the fact that due to the urgency of the fight against climate change, the best policies are those which provide not just carrots, but also sticks. We cannot afford simply to make public transit (not to mention cycling and walking) easier and then idly contemplate our achievements. Driving must be made more costly as well.
A regional sales tax fails to consider this angle, as does one of the other five mayors’ proposals, leveraging land value along transit corridors, netting $30 million annually. The other three suggestions, however, may be onto something.
These include a vehicle registration fee worth $50 million per year and some kind of long-term road pricing scheme of undetermined (but potentially high) value. In principle, these are much better ideas, for the carrot-and-stick reasons outlined above, but they are still not perfect. While they would impose costs on drivers, these costs would not vary by fuel efficiency or distance, or if they did, would do so rather imprecisely.
No, the best of the five proposals put forward by the Mayors’ Council is a regional $5-per-tonne carbon tax, expected to generate an annual $90 million in revenue. Such a tax would provide funding for public transit while at the same time (in concert with our provincial carbon tax) discouraging greenhouse gas emissions.
Of course, even this idea comes with some downsides. Carbon taxes on their own, like sales taxes, are regressive, which is why, as I have written before, all the best carbon tax proposals offer to return a significant portion of the revenue generated to low- and middle-income households. The mayors’ letter makes no mention of such a corrective mechanism, perhaps because it would diminish the amount of revenue available for transit.
But while I would prefer a carbon tax that is as progressively designed as possible, part of me is willing to look past the mayors’ apparent oversight. After all, public transit — the project which the carbon tax is meant to fund — tends to benefit those with low incomes. I do not mean to claim that all transit users are poor or that all car owners are rich; the real world is never so simple. But one of the impacts of a carbon tax of the kind suggested by the Mayors’ Council would be a shift in wealth, on average, from the slightly-more-well-off to the slightly-less-well-off.
In other words, what we have here — or at least can have — is something that is both good for the poor and good for the environment. In my own peculiar little red-green world, this is known as “two birds with one stone.”
So I hope that Mary Polak will respond to the mayors’ letter with an open mind (or more realistically, that her successor will do so after the May election). And I hope that TransLink and the various municipal governments of Metro Vancouver take a close look at the idea of a regional carbon tax. Perhaps it can be used in combination with some of the other options put forward. Perhaps decision makers will agree to raise the tax beyond $5 per tonne or include some kind of additional compensation for people with low incomes.
In any case, increased funding to public transit is urgently important — and so is a reduction in fares.