Word has it that the results of the referendum will be out on Thursday at 10am. Like a lot of other people, I’ll be out of town. So here are some anticipatory thoughts.
What happens if there’s a Yes vote? – as unlikely as that seems. (I thought a referendum would fail the moment I heard the Premier put forward the idea in the last election. Nothing since has changed my mind. Indeed, I thought the best strategy would be to get everyone to vote No, regardless of where they stood on the issues, in order to discredit the whole process from the beginning.)
But if the Yes side prevails, I think there would be an immediate shock, a lot of surprise, and then a discussion about which priorities should move forward first. The first thing we’d notice from a ‘yes’ outcome would be a quick increase in service on some express routes, orders for hundreds more buses, and a reaffirmation of the regional strategy, both for land use and transportation.
Here, though, are some of the immediate questions in the event of No vote.
What happens to TransLink? There will be an immediate call for new governance, both in process and on the board. The appointed board, after all, has to be accountable for the decisions it made – and then failed to defend effectively – that became the justification for so much negativity and culminated in a vote of non-confidence. Having been part of the process that chose its members, I believe that while they are qualified and committed people, they nonetheless should put their appointments up for reconsideration.
Fortunately, the board has indicated that its meetings will be now be open to the public – a necessity, given that its job will be to authorize the reallocations of service and more and more cutbacks. To do that in closed sessions would be totally unacceptable, and a further discrediting of TransLink.
The Mayors’ Council will have to consider its role too, at least in the short term. What further political capital are mayors prepared to spend, after having done everything the Province asked but still effectively received a vote of non-confidence from the voters? Will it speak as one, or fragment into parochial and partisan division?
Will the Yes coalition stay together, at least to make a case for a better process that can get us to Yes?
What responsibility does the Minister Stone take? He was mandated by the Premier to work with the mayors to achieve a Yes vote. Did he take that seriously, and what conclusions does he draw?
In particular, will there have to be another referendum? If the provincial government requires that every time the region wants to consider transit expansion, we’re going to have another $12-million-dollar referendum and we aren’t going to be confident of the outcome, that effectively ends the ability to plan the region around transit.
What is Plan B, at least in Surrey and Vancouver? Their mayors indicated they either had a Plan B or will move quickly to get one. In the case of Surrey, observers are anticipating the senior governments will be at the table with hundreds of millions to move light rail forward, and the city presumably will lever development and property taxes for the rest. Don’t expect the same for Vancouver. This ad hocery will leave the rest of the region (and TransLink) without resources to operate Surrey’s expansion or to consider needs elsewhere in a system that must be integrated to work well. The results will be brutally divisive, and make the next referendum, if required, even less likely to pass.
What is the default transportation strategy for the region? If we are not going to plan, shape and service growth around transit, what will be the basis for decisions that have to made regardless? Do we assume growth will now be primarily serviced through expansion of the road system, with more dependence on vehicles? That effectively ends the regional plan as we know it – and reverses the legacy of the last several generations of planners and leaders.
It means municipal plans will have to be reconsidered and zoning decisions looked at in a new light of a harsh reality. Already I hear that some local leaders are calling for a reconsideration of high-density urban form along growth corridors that cannot count on new transit service. What about ‘complete communities’ anticipated for sites like Jericho, the Pearson hospital lands, Riverview or any other megaproject in the region? On hold? Cancelled? Or redesigned to be auto-oriented?
Does this mean by default we squeeze growth out to urban fringe, putting more pressure on the agricultural land reserve, already being stressed by the new road infrastructure, both completed and planned – notably the Massey crossing and an expanded Highway 99? (Vancouver, in particular, has to realistically consider the implications of wider roads and bridges that lead from north, east and south to its borders. How will more traffic be accommodated? Expect a version of Freeway Fight 2.0.)
What, in particular, will happen to the Pattullo Bridge? Is TransLink now expected to pay millions for short-term refurbishment and then hundreds of millions more for a new crossing, when it has no new resources? (Even a toll or road pricing might, in theory, require a referendum – certainly permission from the Province.) Why not just close it down and return responsibility to the provincial government?
Ultimately, the most important question of all is simply: What is our vision for the future? Is the regional plan dead? Will a second-rate transit system will be acceptable if that’s the only way to get a Yes vote in the future? What does that mesn for our reputation as a green, sustainable region – when those who saw us as an international model of success now realize that we voted against transit even as we committed to spend more to build roads and bridges?
Will there be leadership? Listen very carefully to every word and nuance from the Premier in response to a No vote. Will blame and responsibility be passed on to the region, without a vision from the Premier herself for the economic engine of this province and a majority of its people? Will there be a few politically chosen transit projects to give the illusion of progress but without a belief that this region deserves and needs a first class transportation system?
What does this vote mean for tangential, generational issues? Add the loss of transit expansion to the rising cost of housing, to a tax cut for the richest 2 percent equal to the amount that would have been raised for transit, to the end of the regional vision and a default to motordom, to an expansion of fossil fuel exports through the region accompanied by a loss of lands in the ALR for port expansion and quick, cheaper development, and you have a toxic mix of issues without resolution.
That political vacuum would have to be filled. Some, like Jordan Batemen, who will be given considerable credit as a giant killer, will argue that No means voters just want lower taxes, less government and will be satisfied with that second-rate transportation system. Others, especially those assembled around the Metro Vancouver table, will have to offer an alternative.
Or maybe it means that a new generation of leaders will have to emerge who are prepared to fight for the vision that has sustained us for so long and so well.