10 tactics to win the transit referendum

rock-the-voteThe mood is shifting as advocates begin to recognize the 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 ten 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 just 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 pay 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 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 #9).

7. 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 creating a database of supporters.

The ‘Yes’ side needs a list with names, numbers, addresses, and contact information. This is so much more than a 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 the 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.

8. 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 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.

9. 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.

10. Project confidence

Power and politics is about confidence. When your 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.

And… #11: Register voters!

One extra tactic that particularly applies to the student societies. Just because you’re entitled to vote, doesn’t mean you necessarily will unless you are registered under 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!

Update: #12: Get Visual

One more thought: This referendum needs visuals! The projects are still words, and one of the best ways to help people see the future then 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 my major media when writing 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.

Posted in Transport | Leave a comment

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

6a0120a6abf659970b0162fde3889c970d-800wi

“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!

Posted in Site Info, Transport | Leave a comment

Leap Ahead: A parting gift to our readers

skytrain

Would you pay $0.35 a day if you got:

  • UBC SkyTrain
  • Two Light Rail lines in Surrey
  • 7 new B-Lines
  • Burnaby Mountain Gondola
  • Doubled capacity on the Expo Line

That’s the gist of Leap Ahead, a transit funding proposal that was released today. Based on over a year’s worth of research by myself and Nathan Pachal, the proposal pitches a 0.5% regional sales tax to cover the region’s share of the $6.5 billion cost of the infrastructure package. If approved, Leap Ahead would unlock $15 billion in economic returns and support 230,000 jobs, 4 times the number of jobs from the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.

Leap Ahead is a vision of a possible future. We all know what we need to build, the question was always ‘how’. Our research determined that a regional sales tax was the fairest, most affordable, and most realistic option for this region to move forward.

You can read the whole report, with a ton more stats and a plethora of maps, at leapaheadyvr.com

Consider Leap Ahead a parting gift to my readers and to fellow transit advocates across the region. I have been hired as a planner for the Province of Saskatchewan and will be shutting down Metro604 with this post. I will keep the site online as there is a valuable archive of over 500 posts spanning 5 years but there will not be any new articles forthcoming.

As I leave my home in Metro Vancouver, one year before a pivotal referendum on transit, it is my hope that Leap Ahead provides advocates with a viable pitch to win this battle. The referendum will determine the livability of this region for a generation. It is up to those of you who I leave behind to use the best parts of Leap Ahead, form coalitions with broader interest groups, and broker a deal that is winnable. Good luck.

Posted in Site Info, Transport | 8 Comments

Bike Funding Solution – Share the Wealth

Richmond is flat. It’s a fact. Everybody knows this, and as a result everybody says it’s a perfect city for cycling. The City’s cycling facilities work well, for the most part, but are limited. We have the well-known dyke trail which is great, but unpaved. Shell Trail, also unpaved, can take you from just north of Alderbridge Way down to the south arm of the Fraser River. We also have some painted lanes on certain roads which aren’t perfect, but are better than nothing. Unfortunately, the bike lanes on No 3 Rd are uneven, incomplete, and kind of embarrassing.

Cycling is increasing in popularity, and facilities are expanding, although one city city councillor confusingly thinks we’ve done enough.The most exciting piece, the 4 km Railway Ave Greenway, is under construction on a former rail line and will link the middle and south arms of the Fraser. Lansdowne Rd will eventually see a 10 m linear park along its length with a bidirectional bike path on its northern side. Sexsmith Rd will get separated lanes, as will River Rd from Hollybridge Way to Cambie Rd as it is redirected over time, also on a former rail bed.

This is exciting stuff, but other than Railway (with funding from TransLink) they are all dependent on new development and developer contributions. If the market crashed tomorrow, so would our bicycle dreams. Any other cycling improvements get their money from a tiny budget that doesn’t have enough to complete a neighbourhood bike route in a single year. We’re talking signage, paint, and a little paving, nothing crazy. Things are happening, but too slowly.

This budget predicament got me thinking about what we could build for the $4 million that Richmond spends on road repaving every year. Instead of cycling advocates fighting endlessly for new money, why don’t we put off repaving for a year (the roads will survive) and direct the money, and materials and labour, towards bike infrastructure? And let’s do it every three years. Spend year 1 consulting the public on what’s needed. Year 2 will be for designing and refining. Year 3 is the year the money is diverted and the facilities are built. Year 4 we celebrate, study the impacts, and start again. Do this three times over 9 years at a cost of $12 million and, combined with what’s being built by developers, Richmond will have some of the best cycling infrastructure in the country, and at no extra charge.

Could this work in every city? Probably not, but surely cities could rethink the necessity of some of their annual paving projects. Also, the benefit of Richmond’s very proactive paving policy is that the City’s roads are in exceptionally good condition. Should we have to do this? In a city that is able to find over $100 million for a seniors centre, pool, and fire hall, you wouldn’t think so. If transportation infrastructure funding is limited, however, sharing the wealth with bikes might be a plausible solution.

Posted in Richmond, Transport | 3 Comments

How will anti-TransLink vote influence transit referendum?

A comment on the recent Price Tags article on the upcoming November 2014 TransLink Referendum (TransLink Referendum: Can It win? What do we need to know?) strikes a chord on the instruments of an upcoming transit expansion funding referendum. Commenter “David” posted:

Sadly there will be an anti-TransLink vote, even by people who favour additional funding for transit. Some will choose a non-TransLink supported idea just to spite them while others will switch to the “no” side. Unfortunately TransLink has been the victim of bad propaganda for the last 20 years and a significant number of people believe it needs to be reformed or scrapped despite numerous audits showing that it’s actually doing a good job. The people in BC never let facts get in the way of ideology.

Sadly, he is correct.

Votes in the upcoming Metro Vancouver transit funding referendum will be filled with the votes of people who may want transit expansion, but don’t want TransLink. These people want a Metro Vancouver transit future where the only service expansions will come through finding of additional “efficiencies” in TransLink, or the scrapping of TransLink altogether in favour of a different agency. A referendum, thanks to its ability to define a direct result, is dangerous in that it can be easily seen as a tool for these people to “get their revenge” on TransLink.

Sometimes egregiously bad propaganda, such as the recent wash on TransLink for providing free coffee to employees (let’s face it, TransLink is being singled out wrongly – it’s probably not the only transit management agency that does this), has been all over the local media for the past several years. In many ways, it has already had its effect on TransLink; as in recent years TransLink has indeed been put through a lot of scrutiny, and then through audit after audit.

The ironic thing is that many of these audits found TransLink to be a well run company doing a good job. One audit on TransLink efficiency stated that TransLink’s funding formula is the “best in Canada”, because it has allowed it (TransLink) to maintain transit expansion during the recent economic downturn, whereas others across the country were cutting service; its progress report has noted that TransLink does have an interest in pursuing efficiency, and has has made significant progress in taking initiative. A later review of its governance system, while noting that TransLink’s system is one-of-a-kind in the world, found that it is still seen as “state of the art” internationally.

However, these audits were also successful in fulfilling their main purpose – to be audits. While they found that TransLink has not been doing badly, they also found that changes can be made, and in those changes there are those opportunities to make TransLink’s efficiency “better”.

Because of bad propaganda, there are a lot of people and groups in Metro Vancouver who hold TransLink to absurdly high expectations of efficiency; and, so long as there are absolutely any potential “inefficiencies” in TransLink, even if a “solution” to that inefficiency is a reduction in service or an unreasonable impact to management (as were some of the recommendations in these recent audits), there will be an anti-TransLink vote.

Look around: the results of this bad propaganda are everywhere. An online news article that has to do with transit expansion in Metro Vancouver will often yield a number of comments made by folk who will oppose transit expansion just for the sake of TransLink being in charge.

Article after article, editorial after editorial, letter after letter, and decision after decision, bad propaganda has probably already dealt its damaging blow to the future of the Metro Vancouver transit system, and there might not be much that can be done about that.

(Header photo credit: CC-BY-NC-ND Flickr: Andrew Ferguson)

Posted in Transport | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments