“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.
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
- Carbon tax
- Vehicle levy
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!