The Case for ‘Yes’ in Metro Vancouver’s Transit Referendum

File:Vancouver Transit.jpgWell, 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.

Carrots and Sticks: How to Fund Public Transit

TransitIf 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.