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In December 2012, the SFU Centre for Dialogue – well before the referendum – brought together between 25 to 50 members from a diversity of organizations to share information and to try to find a path forward for transportation in Metro Vancouver. As the referendum drew closer, it grew to an informal consortium of over 30 organizations and 100 business, government and community leaders.

Without playing a political role, it “committed to developing the educational campaign and preparing Metro Vancouver citizens and stakeholders for the referendum by providing information on transportation issues and funding options for the region in the context of the upcoming vote.”

In a just-released report, it analysed the results.

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Moving 2

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What did they learn?

Early on in the referendum process, MLR provided evidence-based research on past ballot initiatives and referenda that highlighted three main points

  • (i) the political process requires a lead time of at least 18 months from the development of the question and revenue tool to host a well-organized transportation referendum ;
  • (ii) there needs to be strong political leadership that supports a favourable outcome; and,
  • (iii) there needs to be both a strong advocacy campaign and a strong educational campaign from a trusted source.

Insufficient time to plan effective messaging, properly organize the affected communities, and put together a robust ‘get out the vote’ effort can doom a campaign. This was the case in the 2012 Los Angeles ballot initiative that failed, despite strong coalition, ample local political support, and several previously successful campaigns. …

Despite making this research widely available, the recommendations from this research were not followed, and a reasonable period for both the Yes and No campaigns to inform voters were not established.

The economic, health, and environmental impacts of traffic congestion that were apparent to diverse business and community organizations did not resonate with or were not communicated well to citizens prior to the vote. Citizens did not have an opportunity to meaningfully engage on the transportation vision, referendum question, or funding sources; despite broad consensus on the need for sustainable funding for regional transportation, regional leaders focused their efforts too narrowly on diverse but representational stakeholders groups.

Given a longer timeline, the province, Mayors’ Council, and TransLink could have developed an engagement strategy to ensure that citizens had a voice in developing the region’s transportation vision. …

Participation in a democratic process requires cultivating a certain level of knowledge on political issues that affect us as civil society. The truth is that free time, access to objective information, and the opportunity to consider a range of opinions and ideas, is a luxury in today’s world. How can we connect the decision-making mechanisms of government with citizens, while ensuring that they have the opportunity to move beyond an emotional or partisan response, to a full consideration of the implications of a certain result?

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Was the referendum meant to fail?  If so, why?

I can think of several reasons:

(1) It was a way to limit the capacity and resources of local and regional government.  Conventional (neoliberal) wisdom argues that all levels of government should accept the construct of low taxes (and certainly no increases), no deficits, less regulation and more private-sector delivery of services and infrastructure.

As provincial and federal governments vacate or download responsibilities to local and regional governments, the pressure is on, mainly by the right, to constrain their growth to no more than the rates of inflation and population growth.  The referendum was a successful way to use antipathy for government (notably TransLink) to get the public to, if necessary, vote against their collective self-interest and thus restrain local governments’ ability to expand services.

(2) It was a way to catalyze a protest vote and thus force a reformation of TransLink.

(3) It was a way for the provincial government to avoid making commitments for transit in Metro Vancouver, even as it could use revenues (and taxes from Metro Vancouver) to fund highway and bridge projects both in Metro and, more importantly, elsewhere in the province.

(4) It was a way to negate the vision of the region that has sustained it for a half a century:

We commit to help create a livable and sustainable region while maintaining municipal character and diversity by fostering complete communities in a compact urban area, a strong and resilient economy, transportation choices and protecting the environment.

Without the assurance of transit funding, the region cannot plan a way forward consistent with that vision.  Motordom succeeds by default, or more explicitly by the transportation infrastructure actually built by the Province, which will now shape growth as the urban boundaries of the region are breached.

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Asphalt Noose

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Perhaps you have some other explanations …