Thursday, 29 August 2013

Once more, that darned referendum on how to pay for transit - an open letter to Brent Toderian


Brent,

I just heard your interview with Stephen Quinn on CBC and your vigorous criticism of the BC Liberals’ election commitment to hold a referendum on transit funding in 2014.

I have a couple of concerns with your comments, and hope you don’t mind me sharing them with you in this public way.   I always enjoy listening to you, and I usually learn something from your discussions with Stephen, but there were two aspects of this discussion that I want to comment on.

First, as I heard you, you criticized the whole notion of conducting a referendum on whether there should be capital spending on transit.  You don’t think people should be asked whether or not to make capital expenditures on transit because, as I heard you say, transit spending should not be seen as an expenditure, but rather, as an investment, and you don't like the idea of making this question so political.  But that’s not what the referendum will be about.  The referendum will not be about whether there should be more investment in transit.   It will be about which funding mechanism should be used to pay for it.  That is a completely different question, and I don’t think I heard you or Stephen point that out in your interview.  For reference, this is the actual promise from the BC Liberal election platform:

Work with the Metro Vancouver Mayor’s Council and
TransLink to identify possible sources of funding for
transit improvements. Any new revenue sources would
then be subject to a referendum to be held at the same
time as the municipal elections in November 2014.

So, with respect, I think you were engaging in a classic “straw man” argument: you mischaracterized the political promise, and then attacked the mischaracterization. The question is not whether we should have transit.  The question is how we should pay for it.

Second, you were very critical of the idea of using referenda as a tool for making decisions about municipal government capital investments.  It was a pretty pungent critique!  Unfortunately, you failed to mention that referenda are routinely used in British Columbia for that very purpose; in fact, they are required by law.  As I am sure you will recall, City of Vancouver voters were asked on the 2011 civic election ballot whether or not to approve a $180 million dollar capital investment plan.   Such questions are regularly asked on municipal election ballots all the time.  I suppose one could single out transit as a special kind of capital spending that should not be put to a referendum, but that was not your critique: you just attacked the use of referenda as a tool for capital expenditure decisions period.  It’s all very well to drag in the usual criticism about direct democracy and California, but we actually have a very long tradition in British Columbia of using direct democracy to get voter consent for capital spending. 

I completely agree with you about one thing: our discussion about public issues is much better when we deal with the facts, complex as they sometimes are.   And most of the time you are very good at doing that very thing.  But your discussion today left me wishing you had been just a little more precise about these two rather important considerations.

Best regards,

Geoff