How a Yes vote will be Christy Clark’s victory

Say what you will about Premier Christy Clark, but she seems to have a knack for pulling a victory out of imminent collapse. In the 2013 provincial election, she surprised everyone when she secured the Liberals’ fourth straight majority against a poll leading NDP. In March 2014, the Premier was praised for negotiating an end to a crippling strike at the Port. She repeated that feat in September 2014, refusing to legislate the BCTF back to work and negotiating a widely lauded six year contract.

Therefore, it should not come as a surprise this May when the votes of the transit plebiscite are counted and a Yes victory becomes another feather in the cap of Christy.

And why shouldn’t she be commended? Transit funding has been an issue since TransLink was created in 1999. Despite the efforts of two provincial governments, six Ministers of Transportation, three TransLink CEOs, and half a dozen TransLink Board Chairs, it’s never been successfully resolved – until Christy Clark.

The promise of a referendum on this issue has been roundly regarded as a failure of leadership on her part. While we can debate the merits of using referenda to set public policy, what can’t be denied is the effectiveness this plebscite has had in getting a coalition of supporters publicly defending transit.

A quick read of the scene from just one year ago reminds us how silent community leaders were. Most wanted to cancel the referendum. The mayors eschewed any responsibility of TransLink and demanded funding from the provincial carbon tax. The business community did not make a peep about the whole issue.

A year later and Christy’s referendum has forced the entire political and community establishment of the region to defend an ambitious and optimistic vision for our future. The mere act of putting this to a vote has initiated an unprecedented public dialogue about transit, health, the economy, and public investment – not to mention more than a few debates among governance, transparency, customer service, and CEO wages.

Some say that the referendum is a dangerous precedent, dragging our Canadian sensibilities into American-style politics. That may be true – but there is something powerful about having that regional debate and forcing people to make a choice about their future. Yes, the stakes are high, but no matter what the outcome, engaging in that dialogue is a powerful sign of a healthy democracy.

For Christy Clark, the plebiscite is just another example of her seemingly aloof, yet extremely calculated political strategy. While it may appear from the outside that she could care less about the outcome, nothing could be further from the truth. Many of her key allies and operatives are working directly or indirectly on the Yes campaign. With three months still to go, the 2015 plebiscite could look strikingly similar to the 2013 provincial election.

And when the Yes victory is announced, expect Christy Clark to own the win, because she will have done what none of her predecessors could do, with a strategy the entire regional establishment initially disowned – break the funding logjam and build the transit system that Metro Vancouver needs.

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Four scenarios following a No vote

1. Status quo

With a failure to secure a Yes vote, the political class is rebuked and loses its legitimacy in the public sphere. TransLink’s management and board recoil even further, with communications to the outside world effectively eliminated. The Mayors will continue to play political games with the province, refusing to increase property taxes to pay for new projects.

The Pattullo Bridge will be delayed for three more years, but eventually begin construction under a tolling regime – it will be the first new project TransLink undertakes following the plebiscite’s defeat. The Surrey LRT plans will be canned, as will any increases to bus service.

The Broadway extension will become the next priority. The province and federal government will provide preliminary funding in 2017 and 2018, respectively. The Mayors will debate regional funding mechanisms for two more years, until finally agreeing to fare hikes and a gas tax increase. The project will start moving forward in 2020.

Governance, administration or corporate structure will not see any major changes. The public will continue to complain of mismanagement and waste. Transit use and customer service ratings will begin a slow and steady decline.

2. Reorganize

With the prospect of rising costs and flat or declining revenues, TransLink is faced with a new political reality: this can no longer be a public service, but must become a revenue generating business. The subsidized routes that are losing the most money must be cut. Services like B-Lines that have stronger businesses cases will obtain this freed up funding.

This will provide an opportunity to privatize bus operations. Currently, HandyDART, Canada Line, and West Vancouver Blue Bus are private entities contracted by TransLink to operate service. The TransLink owned and operated subsidiary Coast Mountain Bus company will be dissolved, allowing private companies to bid on operations. This will improve customer service, reduce costs such as wages, and add an element of competition to the system.

Fares will be increased concurrently with the service reorganization. The U-Pass Program will be eliminated in favour of post-secondary students paying Concession rates – this will reduce overcrowding and undue stress on the network.

TransLink will no longer focus on ambitious capital projects to meet mode share goals, but rather invest solely in smaller projects that produce greater return on investment. Examples include: signage, cleanliness, technology, cycling and walking infrastructure, and customer service. SkyTrain and road expansions are off the table. If there is a business case, pursuing a regional bike share system could prove fruitful in getting people out of cars as an alternative to investing in mega transit projects. TransLink may also pursue the potential to acquire the Modo Car Share Co-op to move into the car sharing business, assuming the membership would agree to an acquisition and re-organization.

TransLink will also move aggressively into development to generate revenues. It will form a self-sufficient development corporation, modeled after successful examples in Surrey and Calgary. With a small base of funding, and through partnerships with municipalities, landowners, and other developers, TransLink will make strategic investments in property that produce dividends for the agency. These investments will not necessarily be at transit hubs.

3. Restructure

To address issues of governance and regional equity, TransLink is dissolved. Its operations are absorbed into five divisions within BC Transit’s new South Coast department: Vancouver, Burnaby/New Westminster, the Tri-Cities, the North Shore, and the South of Fraser.

BC Transit becomes responsible for operations of SkyTrain and bus services. All bridges become the property of the provincial government. Road, cycling, and walking is no longer funded regionally, becoming the responsibility of individual municipalities.The Crown corporation works with the municipal governments through a new Transportation Committee on the Metro Vancouver Board.

Transit services and funding is reorganized, requiring each division to become self-sufficient. Bus routes in Vancouver will be funded solely by Vancouver, and so on. SkyTrain costs are paid for by all five divisions through the gas tax. If a division wants better service, it must be prepared to pay for it through property tax increases. The U-Pass Program will be renegotiated, doubling the current fees to incur better cost-recovery.

Following the completion of the Evergreen Line in 2016, the province will advance the Broadway extension to Arbutus as the next high priority transit project in the South Coast. The region’s share will be contributed through higher fares and an increase in the gas tax. The project will begin to advance around 2020. The Premier will make a commitment to build a new, wider Pattullo Bridge, but only after the Massey Bridge project is complete.

4. Redo

The overwhelming message of the No vote is taken to heart – fix TransLink first! The province does not change any legislation, but the Board makes voluntary procedural changes to improve public perception: meetings become more open, executive compensation is renegotiated and reduced, as are car allowances and bonuses. The Board Chair and new CEO coordinate their messaging and become the public face and voice of TransLink. They build a stronger, more positive relationship with the Mayor’s Council.

Customer service becomes priority number one, with all front-line staff going through new training. Service optimization continues to open up funding for smaller investment projects. The new CEO makes strategic investments in signage, technology, cleanliness, and station/exchange infrastructure to show tangible improvements on the ground.

A new communications approach puts TransLink on the offense, leveraging its large customer base to build a team of transit advocates to support the brand. Staff become more visible, communicating directly about their operations and projects through a new corporate-wide blog. Positive stories are aggressively and proactively provided to the media on a regular basis.

Following the opening of the Evergreen Line in late 2016, the Mayors and TransLink agree to modify and re-launch the 10 year funding plan and pursue a new referendum in 2017 in conjunction with the municipal election.

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Gamechanger: It’s time to talk Plan B

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With news today that the ‘No’ side has taken the lead with 53%, leaving only 38% supporting the ‘Yes’ side, it’s clear that the ‘No’ side has the momentum. While this data is from an online poll, which have been notoriously unreliable in recent elections, it does validate the general perception that the ‘Yes’ side continues to falter.

This, despite serious efforts from the ‘Yes’ side over the past few weeks. The Better Transit and Transportation Coalition has hosted three launch events, none of which received any substantial coverage from the media. Their message has been sound, talking about the improvements that are promised and discussing the general economic and health benefits of transit. Yet, it’s just not resonating thus far.

Partly, I think it’s because not too many people are paying attention. Just like with federal politics or municipal elections, some citizens may be in the know, but most don’t really care until the writ is dropped. With this campaign, voting doesn’t get underway until March 16th, and then the ballots don’t even have to be submitted till the end of May. This should give the ‘Yes’ campaign some solace, because it means that there’s lots of time for people to change their minds or get informed. Recent news that Elections BC will be mailing an information pamphlet with each ballot that shows all the improvements promised should also sway some voters’ minds.

So on one hand, I think the ‘Yes’ campaign needs to keep trucking along. They need to stick with their core message and find new strategies and venues to get it across. The typical podium and speech style isn’t proving to be media-worthy anymore, so it’s time to jazz things up. The ‘Yes’ side needs to do a much better job of engaging the grassroots and giving the bounty of engaged regular Joes volunteer opportunities, whether its handing out pamphlets at transit stations or canvassing folks downtown. I would also hope their voter ID strategy is well underway, although the polls show that Surrey First is failing to get their supporters to vote ‘Yes’.

Many would attribute the ‘No’ gains to the recent decision to fire Ian Jarvis as CEO of TransLink. I’ll be honest and say that the press on the matter couldn’t be any worse. However, in the short and long term, I believe it was the right decision. For folks who complain about management issues, the buck does not stop with the Board – it stops with the CEO. An effective CEO sets the tone of the organization and often becomes its face. With interim CEO Doug Allen actively seeking interviews with the press, I think he’s at least trying to become the face, which shows more transparency and leadership. If he is genuinely able to show a couple tangible changes on the ground that improve customer service in the short term, I think it can help the ‘Yes’ side, though that may be unrealistic.

With that said, the campaign obviously needs a game changer. And I think it could be re-shaping the dialogue around a Plan B.

Even before the official ‘Yes’ launch, the Mayors line had been that there is no Plan B. That’s obviously false, as has been proven by Jordan Bateman, both with the Pattullo Bridge being paid for by tolls, and Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner promising during her mayoral campaign to build LRT regardless of the referendum’s outcome.

The problem with saying there’s no Plan B is that it’s fear mongering. It treats the voter like they have no choice, putting them into a corner and making them feel powerless. That type of campaigning can backfire badly, encouraging voters to actively vote ‘No’ just to prove the “elites” wrong and say that they do in fact have a choice. Whether it’s a good one or not, it doesn’t matter. It becomes a game of emotional warfare.

Here is the reality of Plan B though. If we don’t approve the funding through the sales tax, the funding will come. It will come in spurts, project by project, after many years of debate, the way it has occurred for the past decade. Most of that money will be from the property tax, which is what the province has wanted all along. Ironically enough, many on the far left argue that this is a preferable funding source, as they want the “rich” to pay more.

And that’s the message the Yes side needs to start giving. Stop saying that the question is between a wonderful package of improvements and absolutely nothing for the next 30 years. Start saying that the question is about how you want to pay – and how much.

With this proposal, it will cost an average household $125 a year.

I haven’t seen any official numbers about how much it would cost under a property tax scenario, but based on some rough estimates, it looks to be about $280 a year.

Now that may sounds like a lot, and it is, but Surrey just approved a flat levy of every household of $100 for recreation centres. That passed with little to no debate in Council.

So the argument that property tax is simply not available is false. Mayors are just choosing not to contribute to transit anymore through this mechanism. They’ve wanted to take it off the table and fund transit through an alternate way. The province has given them that opportunity with this plebiscite.

Therefore, we need to put to voters the real choice. Either you pay $125 a year through the sales tax, or you will end up paying $280 a year through property tax. One is significantly cheaper because businesses and tourists pay. There’s far more consumers across the region than property owners. This makes the cost far less per person, which I would argue is more affordable, more equitable, and a better option overall than property tax.

But if voters go for ‘No’, they will still pay, just be paying more.

That is a message I think could change this campaign.

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12 tactics to win the transit referendum

rock-the-voteThe mood is shifting as advocates begin to recognize that winning the transit referendum is not just theoretically plausible, but is a realistic likelihood. However, as in any electoral process, the outcome is never secure until voting day. That means that advocates and supporters will have to mobilize strategically to get us to ‘Yes’. As a community organizer with a background in policy, communications, and media relations, here’s twelve tactics advocates will need to use to win the referendum:

1. Stay on message

As I’ve argued in a previous article, we don’t need to sell the benefits of transit as the public already gets it. As a result, this referendum is quite simple – it’s a basic transaction. Citizens contribute money and in return they receive the following improvements over the next ten years. In other words, if you want the improvements, you’ll vote ‘Yes’. This is the ‘unique value proposition’ or the sales pitch. Tell voters what they get.

The Broadway subway, Surrey LRT, 11 new B-Lines, a new Pattullo Bridge, a third Seabus. In ten years. That’s the sale, those are the key deliverables.

Always keep this message front and centre.

2. Don’t focus on the funding

Yes, the referendum is about a 0.5% regional sales tax. But never start a message with the price tag. That’s just sales 101. You always begin with the product. Then, if necessary, you follow up with the price.

For the referendum, there’s two messages on price. First, we need to drive home the fact that the 0.5% regional sales tax will cost each household just $0.35 per day.

35 cents.

This is a critical number. When put in that context, it’s chump change and an easy sale after laying out the major projects it would fund.

On an annual basis, it comes out to $125 per year for each household. But that’s a big number and there’s no need to state it on an annual basis.

The main advantage of the sales tax approach is that it’s a small contribution spread out over the entire year on a variety of purchases, rather than the lump sum fee approach of a vehicle levy. So let’s stop saying it will cost a household $125 per year, and start saying it’s just 35 cents a day.

Secondly, some people continue to debate the merits of the sales tax as the preferred funding source. At the end of the day, it’s been chosen and it’s what’s on the table. But, there is a good response to this argument: the sales tax is the most affordable and equitable approach. Because more people contribute to it, the ultimate contributions of each individual are lower. By comparison, a vehicle fee or carbon tax would cost each household $230 per year. Use this line if it comes up.

3. The best defense is a good offense

Opponents will try to derail the messaging. They will turn this into a debate about TransLink, its management, executive pay, ridership, efficiencies, alternative solutions. Don’t play into their hand. That’s not what this ballot question is about – see #1 & #2.

If we’ve learned anything from Stephen Harper, especially in the last election, it’s the effectiveness of staying on the message. In every interview, every stump speech, every debate, he repeated to same message: “a strong, stable, majority Conservative government”.

Lo and behold, that’s what he got. Opponents said he was ignoring the debate and maybe so, but he knew what was effective and what would win.

Campaigns are about power and politics. Never let your opponents seize the conversation or derail your campaign.

So when the media asks for retorts to the arguments of opponents, answer in a very benign and simple way, but always pivot back to the key message: what people will get if they vote ‘Yes’. The job of the advocates is not to justify TransLink’s current operations or shield executives from criticism. It’s to win a very simple referendum.

So never, ever play into the hand of opponents. Stay on the offensive and stick to the message.

4. Correct basic wrongs, privately

There’s a difference between conversations happening in major media and those happening in person. In #3, I essentially argued that as an advocate, you should generally try to ignore opponents who try to make the referendum about something that it is not. This is critical when on TV, the radio, the newspaper or even on social media because these exchanges are often in short form and the entire message can get derailed if you give opponents the time of day.

However, if you’re talking about the referendum to co-workers, friends, or family, you have a more neutral and private space in which to correct basic wrongs when presented.

There’s a lot of misconceptions about the referendum and if you can provide some simple information to negate much of the negative public perception about transit or TransLink, use that opportunity. Unlike with major media, it’s not going to be broadcast to hundreds of thousands of people. Plus, when in a conversation with a person one-on-one, they are much more likely to trust your opinion, take you seriously, and show you respect. Those courtesies fly out the window in the media, so it’s a different game.

I’d still focus primarily on the core message, but if you’re presented with some counter arguments, use that private opportunity to correct basic wrongs, or tell them how you see things differently and why.

5. Flood the airwaves

Back seven years ago, there was a lot of chatter about restarting the Interurban rail system to bring better transit south of the Fraser. One of the most effective approaches of that campaign was their strategy to flood the airwaves. Every few months, they would organize a day on Facebook to encourage supporters to write letters to local newspapers, phone into radio talk shows, and usually organize some physical rally to get into the daily TV news. This strategy enabled the Interurban supporters to gain positive press and create the perception that there was a groundswell of support for the initiative, regardless of whether that was true or not.

Often times, it seems like local media, particularly news talk radio, is dominated by cranky callers who like ranting about anything or everything. It’s our job as advocates to utilize these platforms that are presented to us by the media as effectively as the cranks.

So organize days to flood the airwaves. Make the case as to why you support a ‘Yes’ vote. Stay on message. And help build a perception through major media that the ‘Yes’ vote is winning the campaign. You will convince some folks to join the bandwagon in the process.

6. Personify the campaign

One of the eternal dilemmas of TransLink’s poor perception is that it remains a faceless organization. Without a clear person at the helm, it’s a lot easier for folks to bash the agency than to treat its staff with respect and basic courtesy. We’re not going to change that over the next few months, but what we can do is learn from that failure and make sure that we personify the referendum campaign.

Citizens need to see the faces and hear the stories of their fellow citizens. They need to know that the referendum is not an abstract concept with abstract outcomes, but that it is a real proposal with real benefits and outcomes that can improve people’s lives.

There’s a scene in the Harvey Milk movie that changes the campaign for gay rights. It’s when Milk demands his supporters to come out. And not just to their close circle of friends, but to that next circle – family, co-workers, acquaintances. It personified the gay rights debate and put a face to the abstract concept of discrimination and equality. We must do the same.

One key element of this approach though is to also publicly present the local celebrity endorsements. We know the mayors are on side. That’s great. But we need some star power.

There was a minor celebration among cyclists earlier in the year when Trevor Linden said on talk radio that he supported expanded cycling options and the new Point Grey seawall route. That was a powerful endorsement from somebody outside the bubble that most common Vancouverites hold a lot of respect for. We need Trevor Linden to publicly support this referendum.

And there’s plenty more folks like him who hold clout and influence in their own circles:

  • Businessman Jim Pattison
  • Former Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts
  • Environmentalist David Suzuki
  • VANOC Chair John Furlong
  • Artist and Author Douglas Coupland
  • Condo King Bob Rennie
  • Entrepreneur Ryan Holmes
  • VanCity President Tamara Vrooman
  • Singer Michael Buble
  • Actor Michael J. Fox
  • Actor Seth Rogen
  • Comedian Brent Butt
  • Singer Sarah McLachlan
  • Singer Bif Naked
  • BC Lions Quarterback Travis Lulay
  • Former Whitecaps Captain Jay DeMerit

Get them on board, get their faces in the paper, and maybe even get them on the street canvassing for a day or two (see #10).

7. Get Visual

This referendum needs visuals! The projects are still words, and one of the best ways to help people see the future they can choose is to create a package of visuals. Yes, that means maps with routes, but let’s take the next step and do some renderings, either in images or video, of the SkyTrain extension or the new Pattullo Bridge.

The province consistently creates renderings for its major projects, ie the Port Mann or Massey Bridge. Surrey has also created a great video with renders of its LRT proposal. These are powerful and end up being used by major media when doing stories on these projects.

The ‘Yes’ side should produce renders, distribute them to media, post them on social media, include them in pamphlets, and maybe even some TV ads if there’s the budget.

8. Database of supporters

Most of what we’ve talked about so far has been building a base of supporters. But that base doesn’t matter much if you don’t get them to vote. The key to any get-out-the-vote strategy is turning that base into a database.

The ‘Yes’ side needs a list with names, numbers, addresses, and contact information. This is so much more than another Facebook page. Much of the federal Conservatives’ success has been tied to their comprehensive data mining and supporter identification system; the same could be said about Vision Vancouver.

The political parties that are on the ‘Yes’ side will provide a strong list from which to start from. Municipally, Vision Vancouver, Surrey First, and the Burnaby Citizen’s Association have strong machines built on this type of voter identification data. The BC NDP, which leveraged their supporters lists in the HST referendum, will be valuable as well. If the BC Liberals bring their data to the table, a very strong data driven supporter mobilization system can be created.

This information is critical because the ‘Yes’ side needs to know who its supporters are and make sure they vote. By having that data, they can check off those who have cast their ballot over the two month voting period and send reminders to those who haven’t. They can also make targeted advertising campaigns, sending different messages to existing supporters versus those who can be persuaded with additional information.

9. Pamphlets and robocalls

While there will likely be a strong database from the get-go, there is also going to have to be a concerted effort to build and expand the ‘Yes’ base. Two of the most effective strategies are pamphleting and robocalls. These two strategies have propelled Surrey First’s sweeping victories over the last two elections.

Pamphleting to houses, either targeted or en mass, is an effective method to present all the information to voters about the referendum and sell them on the benefits directly. It can also present a call to action, asking the voter to register their support if they intend to vote ‘Yes’.

Robocalls are even more effective from a data gathering perspective. Relatively cheaply, organizers can follow up on pamphlets with the calls to ask for people’s opinions on the referendum or confirm their support with simple touch-tone responses. When the message is personalized, like in the last municipal campaign in Surrey where former Mayor Dianne Watts urged folks to support her candidate Linda Hepner, it can be powerful.  Robocalls can also be used at different stages of the campaign to see how support has shifted depending on different electoral or messaging strategies.

Key to both strategies though is building the base of supporters and getting their information into the database. Doing this region wide would be expensive, but is critical to winning.

10. Canvass on the street

Getting advocates on the ground selling the message may not be tremendously effective in terms of gaining a mass of supporters, but it does make for good imagery on the news, which extends that message ten fold.

Don’t bother with door-to-door – there’s no time for that. Be effective and efficient. Park yourself outside transit loops and SkyTrain stations, at the universities’ student hubs, at major downtown intersections. Bring some placards, some pamphlets, and register supporters.

Pair this strategy with #5 and #6 for increased effectiveness.

11: Register voters!

One extra tactic that particularly applies to the student societies. Just because you’re entitled to vote, doesn’t mean you will be able to unless you are registered with Elections BC! They have yet to clarify what the cutoff date will be for voter registration, but to make sure the student voice counts, get registered ASAP! If you need to update your voter info, do it!

12. Project confidence

Power and politics is about confidence. When you project confidence, most people will feel a sense of comfort and security. They will respect you, listen to you, and want to join your team.

You can bet opponents will be doing their best to derail us, undermine us, divide us, and make us feel like the underdogs, but we’re not.

We’re already the majority.

We know that this is the right plan and the right solution. With a ‘Yes’ vote, we will make Canadian history and move our region forward.

Keep this in your heart and mind. It will give you a sense of power, clout, and confidence which will help distinguish us from the mudslingers, the naysayers, the Tea Partiers, and the ambivalent. And it will propel us to victory.

Posted in Transport | 4 Comments

Why the transit referendum will succeed

mkii-skytrainTransit is the talk of the town, with the question for the referendum approved by the Mayors last week. Not unsurprisingly, many have argued that it is bound to fail. While the plan may be good, folks would never vote to raise taxes, they say.

I, for one, wholeheartedly disagree. As one of the few proponents of a referendum since the get-go, I’m quite confident the referendum will pass with at least a slim majority. Here’s five reasons why:

  1. It’s a winnable plan.

The referendum is about three things: new transit infrastructure, a funding mechanism, and accountability measures.

In terms of infrastructure, the plan will fund the Broadway subway, LRT in Surrey, 11 new B-Lines, a third Seabus, and a new Pattullo Bridge. These projects are highly desired and reach all corners of the region. Check.

A 0.5% regional sales tax was endorsed as the funding mechanism. This was chosen as it was the most affordable and equitable option available. A carbon tax increase or vehicle fee would cost a household $230 a year, while the sales tax is just $125. That equates to just $0.35 per day! Unlike the carbon tax or vehicle levy which penalize drivers, everybody contributes through the sales tax, including tourists. Check.

The referendum question also includes the provision that the funding proposal will be subject to annual independent audits to ensure the money is being used effectively and according to plan. This measure will help address some of the concerns people have about TransLink’s decision making processes. Check.

  1. The majority are already on side

The first scientific, representative poll on the referendum has shown that 52% of adult voters will ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ vote ‘Yes’. Only 39% will ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ voting ‘No’. 9% are undecided. This is a strong baseline for the ‘Yes’ campaign and fits with the general consensus among residents that transit is a smart investment.

The 2012 PlaceSpeak Urban Futures Survey ranked “expanding the public transit system” as the top issue overall for the region, with an increase of four points since 1990. The Vancouver Foundation’s 2013 Vital Signs Report ranked transportation as one of the top three issues for our quality of life, along with affordability and housing. “Expand public transit” and “making transit more affordable” were the top two suggestions to improve the transportation grade. An Insights West survey from 2013 found that 72% of residents supported additional funding for TransLink, but simply couldn’t agree on the best mechanism.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that, right out of the gate, the ‘Yes’ side is strong. People in Metro Vancouver support better transportation and improved transit. The challenge will be convincing the undecided and making sure people cast their ballots.

  1. Business, labour and environment working together

Politics in British Columbia is roughly divided into three camps: business (BC Liberals), labour (BC NDP), and environment (BC Greens). Transit is perhaps one of the only issues that all three of these camps can, and have, come together on to support.

While transit has long received support from the left (labour and environment) for obvious reasons, in Metro, business has recently begun to see transit as key to economic growth. Getting people moving around the region and out of single occupancy vehicles is critical to achieving the intended benefits for goods movement of the Pacific Gateway project. Business groups that got the Gateway plan pushed through Cabinet in the 2000’s, advancing the South Fraser Perimeter Road and the Port Mann twinning, are now back to support the referendum.

With all three major interest groups coming together to support a ‘Yes’ vote, it leaves only the Tea Party-style, vocal anti-tax folks in opposition.

  1. Spring awakening

Most proponents have complained that there is not enough time to educate voters or sell the benefits of the plan. As I argued above, most folks already understand the benefits and support transit, meaning the compressed timeframe isn’t actually that big of a problem. While additional time is generally good, I’d argue that having a vote in a matter of months will actually support a ‘Yes’ vote.

Just like with municipal, or even provincial elections, the majority of voters don’t pay much attention until about a month or two weeks before the vote. Everything before hand is mostly chatter within the political bubble. With transit talk in the air, having a vote in the near future is actually good – it keeps the topic fresh in people’s minds.

In addition, it forces proponents to get their act together and move swiftly to make their case. Besides, most of the messaging and information is ready to go; it just needs to be communicated to folks.

Four months is plenty of time.

  1. The Vision and Surrey First machines

Both Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner ran municipal campaigns that promised major transit projects. Despite a groundswell of opposition to both incumbent parties, the machines of Vision Vancouver and Surrey First easily secured majority victories just a few weeks ago.

From this, one can surmise two things. First, that both mayors will be strong and vocal proponents for a ‘Yes’ vote, as they made major platform commitments to build more transit. Additionally, having won their easily seats, they have a mandate from the public to do just that.

Secondly, the Vision and Surrey First machines are robust, well-funded, have critical databases and get-out-the-vote processes that can be mobilized for the referendum. With much of their municipal victories tied to winning a ‘Yes’ vote for transit, we’ll be sure to see both of these parties getting their supporters to cast their ballots.

With the weighting of votes across the region, if both these parties can mobilize the support they saw in the municipal elections to support the ‘Yes’ vote, then the referendum is all but passed.

Posted in Transport | 2 Comments

How the bloggers saved transit

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“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Last summer, before I left the Vancouver region for my first job post-graduation, I released Leap Ahead with my colleague and collaborator Nathan Pachal. Leap Ahead was a policy proposal that pitched a series of critical transit expansions funded through a 0.5% regional sales tax. Just over a year later, Leap Ahead has become official regional policy, forming the basis of the question in the transit referendum that will go to residents in the spring.

How did an armchair proposal crafted by two bloggers go on to become the great transit fix that has befuddled leaders and politicians for over a decade?

This story is about of the power of an idea – how an idea is formed, how it is spread, and how it can come to fruition.

Saving TransLink

I’ve long been an advocate for transit expansion and had some early success at moving forward policy. In 2008, at the age of 18, my unsuccessful campaign for Surrey City Council pitched a city-wide LRT network over a short SkyTrain expansion. My proposal resonated so strongly with Surreyites that the Mayor and Council adopted it and tuned LRT into official city policy. This was a major success, but one that stalled for years due to a much bigger issue: transit funding.

Since TransLink’s formation in 1999, it has lacked sufficient revenue to meet its expansion plans. This ongoing issue has confounded two provincial governments, six Ministers of Transportation, three TransLink CEOs, and half a dozen TransLink Board Chairs. Small, sporadic increases at property taxes, gas taxes, and transit fares kept the organization afloat, but were insufficient to meet all the region’s transit needs. Worse yet, this approach was grinding away at residents’ willingness to pay as they didn’t feel they were seeing substantial enough results.

The Olympics were a clear turning point for my appreciation of TransLink. Through those 16 days, with increased funding, the organization ran a smooth and efficient operation that moved millions across the region. From that point on, we had seen the system that adequate funding could give us. This was not about personnel or administration, this was about resources. So when negotiations between the province and the Mayors on funding stalled once again, I started thinking about what it would take to break the logjam.

The story of Los Angeles

As I approached the funding issue, the case of Los Angeles proved revelatory. After decades of building more freeways, and facing more congestion, Angelonos finally understood that the status quo wasn’t working. So when transit advocates pitched a 0.5% sales tax to fund a $40 billion transit plan, the proposal surprisingly passed. This proved to me three things:

A sales tax is a broad-base revenue tool that can be used for transit
A referendum is one way to ask for additional revenue without political backlash
A referendum forces advocates to rally and build a strong case to the public for new taxes

The more I thought about this model, the more it seemed to me like it could work to break the funding logjam in Vancouver and build the transit system we all clearly want.

Nathan and I could connect every few months and at one of our chats I mentioned this basic pitch to him. He generally agreed with the advantages of a referendum and of a sales tax and I told him I was working to flesh it out and complete some analysis. Meanwhile, the provincial election was coming up soon.

The Liberals promise

Having volunteered in a provincial campaign in the past, policy development can sometimes occur on the fly. Parties make a variety of commitments and pledges, most of which don’t get the deeper analysis they likely should have. So when the BC Liberal platform emerged with mention of a referendum on transit funding, I was somewhat surprised though not entirely shocked.

Here’s where the story gets interesting. At one my chats with Nathan discussing the provincial election, I mentioned the referendum commitment made by the BC Liberals. Nathan knows people within the BC Liberals and NDP in Langley. Apparently, Nathan had discussed the concept of a referendum to fund transit with politicos in Langley prior to the election, including with Peter Fassbender, then the Mayor of Langley, Vice-Chair of the TransLink Mayors Council and running as a BC Liberal MLA in Surrey.

Now, I’m not saying that Peter was the one who put that into the platform. But it does strike me as one of those, off-the-back-of-a-napkin platform commitments that somebody pitches and end up in the final document. Whether that was Peter, whether is was somebody else – who knows? Maybe great minds think alike. However, there does seem to be some connection between the conversations I had with Nathan about the utility of a referendum, his conversations with politicos in the run up to the election, and the referendum idea ending up in the platform.

Re-election and referendum

To almost everybody’s surprise, the BC Liberals won the election, and soon after declared that they were serious about the referendum and fulfilling their platform pledge. At the time, and for well over a year, nearly every transit advocate and local politician tried everything in their power to discredit and stop a referendum from happening. Ultimately, as we know, they failed.

I remember when these conversations were happening because I was one of the lone voices saying that the referendum was not necessarily the best way to make policy, but that it also shouldn’t be feared. It had real promise to break the logjam by providing the political licence to raise taxes. As I argued, if the populace provided a yes vote, neither the Mayors nor the Premier could stand in the way of new revenues. So it was risky, but after a decade of inaction, risk was what we had to take.

Building a winning plan

A few months after the election, and hearing nothing but whining from local advocates, I went back to Nathan. Sensing that nobody had any idea how to proceed, and seeing no leadership from our elected officials, I pitched an idea: we put together a winning transit funding plan for the referendum and release it to the public. He thought it was a good idea so I went to work. I re-opened my old research and started more analysis.

Successful transit referendums, as seen in LA, Seattle, and Denver, require several elements:

  • A list of desirable projects across the region
  • A timeframe with opening dates
  • A system of accountability for the money

Most people aren’t necessarily against new taxes. They just need to know where their money is going, how they are going to benefit, and when. TransLink’s approach in the past has been to just raise revenues and later decide where to use the money. With this referendum, it wouldn’t be good enough to just ask whether we should raise fees or taxes for better transit – this needed to be specific and tangible.

There were some clear priorities already on the table: Vancouver needed the Broadway subway and Surrey needed LRT. Together, these were around $5 billion. There was also a need to expand and upgrade the SkyTrain Expo Line at a cost of around $1 billion. These were the big draws – the sexy projects.

But we needed something for everyone else and “more buses” weren’t going to cut it for the automobile driving majority. B-Lines are a strong, recognizable brand, and the service has been extremely popular in Vancouver. Therefore, with some look at long-term transit planning, we chose seven new routes, with an eye to serving each part of the region. Also added was the third SeaBus for the North Shore and the Burnaby Mountain gondola.

Using existing numbers and some basic math, we determined that the total cost was $6.5 billion. Now that sounds like a lot, but with the region’s share being one-third, we only needed to raise $2.1 billion. Compared to some TransLink communications stating they needed anywhere from $20 to $40 billion over the next thirty years, our initial list sounded quite reasonable.

Did it exclude bus improvements or funding for cycling? Yes. But that decision was two-fold. First off, we couldn’t calculate with any degree of accuracy how much money is needed for these general system improvements. Secondly, these aren’t “sexy” projects – they doesn’t secure votes. Therefore, we focused on the big projects that we knew we could talk to, that were tangible and and that were supported by the public.

Choosing the sales tax

After choosing what needed to be built, we had to figure out how to fund it. My previous analyses had looked briefly at seven funding methods:

  • Property tax
  • Gas tax
  • Fares
  • Carbon tax
  • Vehicle levy
  • Tolls
  • Sales tax

Property tax was off the table as the Mayors didn’t want to increase it. Gas tax was already suffering from declining revenues and increasing it would merely accelerate this problem. Fares were perceived as high already, so that too was off the table. The carbon tax, generally speaking, was just like the gas tax and would suffer diminishing returns. A vehicle levy was doable, but politically toxic to drivers in underserved areas. Tolls, on all the major bridges in the region, was somewhat feasible, but would have to also pay for the capital costs of the Golden Ears and Port Mann, and likely the replacements for the Pattullo and Massey Tunnel – therefore it seemed more appropriate that tolls be only used to fund bridges. As seen in LA, the sales tax was a proven alternative, but was it the right option?

I then compared all these options based on their affordability and their scope (i.e. how many people contribute to each source). One of the political realities of the funding dilemma was how hard each option would hit drivers, as most of the options depend on them funding the transit system. This was a major problem.

While most drivers want transit, it would be a lot easier to have them pay into the system when they feel they have an option to use it. As it stood, there was a stark discrepancy between North and South of the Fraser for transit access.
Unlike the gas tax, tolls or the vehicle levy, which would have drivers – 65% of the population – pay around $166 per year, the sales tax would have 84% of the population contribute (all those over 15 generally), thus reducing the cost to $129 per person over 15, per year.

In that sense, the sales tax was the most affordable because it was also the most comprehensive in terms of those who contribute. This factor made the sales tax the most politically palpable option because it didn’t reduce us into the transit versus driver camps – we all contributed.

Crunching the numbers, a 0.5% regional sales tax was estimated to bring in $250 million a year, just the right amount to build the entire list of projects within a decade.

Politically, the plan was sound. It had the right projects, it had an acceptable funding source, and it had a fast time frame so people could see their money actually improving the system.

Backing up the plan

Nathan and I had agreed on the fundamentals, but we knew it wouldn’t be enough. Now we had to justify the benefits, and the opportunity costs, of the plan. We both agreed that in this era where economy trumps all, we needed real numbers to explain the benefits. It wasn’t good enough to say that this will clean the air – we needed to calculate the reduction in asthma rates and how much money that would save us in health care. It wasn’t good enough to say that this will improve goods movement – we needed to calculate how much congestion would be reduced, many hours that would save and turn that into annual cost savings for businesses. I launched into academic mode and started the research.

Thanks to some great analysis done by several organizations, we were able to quantify the economic benefits at $21.5 billion, meaning a net benefit of $15 billion for taxpayers. We were able to state that the plan would support 234,000 jobs over 30 years, four times more than the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. We had numbers on household savings from fewer cars and improved housing affordability; reductions in obesity and greenhouse gas emissions.

Yes, we believed that with these stats, the plan would pass the sniff test of even the shrewdest anti-tax preachers.

Selling the plan

By late spring, with most of the plan finalized, we starting talking with Get On Board, an infamously ineffective coalition of transit advocates. I knew Lee Haber, who was the new Chair of the organization, and sat down with him to talk about our plan. Lee was impressed, but knew he’d having trouble getting this rest of his group ‘on board’. Surely enough, he was right. Despite several meetings and discussions with various members, they simply couldn’t agree on what should be built or how. It was a textbook example of the problem with decision making by committee. Nobody could compromise and thus no decisions were made.

We had approached Get On Board with the hope that their group would release the plan on our behalf, giving it greater legitimacy. Unfortunately it was not to be. Lee would end up leaving the organization.

The name and the design

As I knew, branding was critical. This couldn’t be known as the sales tax plan. We needed something catchy. After a few ideas thrown about, I pitched the name “Leap Ahead” to Nathan – he loved it. To me, Leap Ahead symbolized what the plan was all about: finalizing the system, building it out so everybody had a transit option and doing so in record time. With this plan, our region would quite literally make a great leap ahead. The name stuck.

Next was design. Up until now, this was all words on paper. We knew that to sell this, we needed graphics. Nathan approached a friend of his and paid him just over $100 to do some graphic design and make the document look a little more presentable. We got some maps, some charts and a front page. It was almost done.

The pitch

By this time, it was late summer, I had been four months into a job search and finally got an offer. After being turned down twice by TransLink, the Government of Saskatchewan offered me a position to do policy analysis. There was no hesitation – I had to take it. I would be leaving in two weeks. But what about Leap Ahead?

I met with Nathan quickly. There was a lull in the news cycle at the end of summer and we still hadn’t heard any referendum news from the province or the Mayors. This was our chance to make a splash.

Nathan and I both had contacts through the regional media. Since I was going away though, I asked Nathan to take on the role as primary spokesperson. He agreed.

We went over the pitch: Leap Ahead is a 10 year transit plan that would fund a Broadway subway, Surrey LRT, and 7 B-Lines with a 0.5% regional sales tax. It would cost just $0.35 per person per day. It would unlock $21.5 billion in economic benefits.

Rinse and repeat.

And thus, with one week to go before my departure, we both wrote posts on our own blogs and sent out the press release.

The response

Nathan was formidable. Over the next week, he fielded interviews from all the major media. He stayed on message, focusing on the benefits and making the sale: this was the only legitimate funding solution; Leap Ahead could serve as a model for the referendum; we welcome alternatives.

What surprised me most was the lack of any backlash. Most people generally supported the idea. There were no shrieks from the anti-tax crowd. Leap Ahead has survived its public wringing unscathed. We knew we were onto something.

By that point though, it was my time to leave. After seven years dedicating my personal time to building a more sustainable future through transit expansion, I was leaving. My dreams of working in the region had been dashed due to my outspoken approach. While my ways had moved forward critical debates in Vancouver, I was too tainted to be employed at a public agency. It was sadly time to move on. I felt I left the region with a plan that, if folks were willing to, could rally behind and solve this most wicked problem.

The aftermath

Since last summer, I’ve spoken to Nathan numerous times as we’ve watched the referendum debate unfold. It was with delight that I witnessed Greg Moore, the Mayor of Port Coquitlam, gather the Mayors and approve a transit package in the summer of 2014 that mirrored Leap Ahead: SkyTrain in Vancouver, LRT in Surrey, 11 new B-Lines. The only thing different is their plan added general funding for bus service and a new Pattullo Bridge. The cost went up from $6.5 to $10 billion. Yet, they still didn’t determine which revenue source to use. The initially endorsed the carbon tax.

Speaking with Nathan, it turns out that the staff at TransLink, the City of Vancouver, and the City of Surrey, that all helped write the Mayors plan, admired our work and saw Leap Ahead as a confirmation of what was saleable. Therefore, the similarities are quite natural.

It was a proud moment at the time, thinking how far our policy proposal came, but nothing is more astonishing than seeing the Mayors now endorse the regional sales tax of 0.5%. This funding source was not even anybody’s radar – most didn’t take it seriously. And yet, the Mayors must have gone through the same analysis and process of elimination we did. It is the best, and indeed the only, reasonable funding solution.

As a result, here we are, well over a year since we released Leap Ahead. Both our plan and our funding mechanism has been adopted by the Mayors and become official regional policy. I can say without waiver that this is my proudest moment yet. I know now that my work, everything I’ve committed the last seven years of my life to, has been worth it. I made a difference.

The lesson

More than anything, this story is about the power of an idea. I think there’s a perception that our leaders don’t listen these days. That the right decisions are never made. And I know how that feels – I’ve been there.

My approach has always been proposition rather than protest. To figure out how we can best solve a problem, back it up with research, and then go make the sale. To all those advocates and community leaders who are trying to make a difference in their communities, follow this model. Make the pitch. And if those in power – whether they are politicians or existing organizations – don’t listen to you, go public. If you can get the public onboard with your idea, those in power will be forced to respond and maybe even change policies.

This is what I was able to do with LRT in Surrey, and it’s what we were able to do once again with Leap Ahead.

Make connections with other community leaders. Build relations with the media. Find your supporters. Do your research. And then make the pitch. Because if it’s a good idea, its time will surely come.

PS: Oh, and if you guys are ready to hire me now, I’ll be happy to come back!

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