Regional transit consensus needed now

Who would vote to, yet again, bump a suburban municipality down the list so that Vancouver can get yet another hugely expensive rapid-transit line?

Forty years ago Vancouver decided what kind of city it wanted to be. In those tumultuous early ’70s, a time of social and political change, new ideas got taken seriously, and Vancouver, with an Art Phillips-led TEAM council, had a lot of them.

It wanted to create the “livable city” – compact, complete, transit-oriented. And it worked.

Now it’s that time again – only it will be the region and not just the central city that decides what kind of place it wants to be.

The issue will be, as it was then, the kind of transportation infrastructure we build: freeways or transit – and the land use that follows. Only it won’t be that simple, given that in the last decade the province and region have already spent billions on the greatest expansion of roads and bridges in several generations. The next years will decide whether that’s all we build or whether we pay for and build transit on a scale that makes a difference both in the fast-growing fringes and in the high-demand centre.

The problem, of course, is how and who will pay.

Most recently, the premier has ruled out road pricing; the mayors have ruled out property tax. And the Minister of Transportation has laid out some rules of her own.

Minister Mary Polak has required that the regional mayors meet three conditions before she’ll even consider a request for new revenue sources:

•the mayors come up with a consensus for the region’s priorities;

•the public supports new funding tools; and

•the increased revenue sources have “no negative impact on the economy”

That last one is a huge out, but it’s the first requirement – a consensus on priorities – that could divide the region, given that the province will likely insist one municipality’s priority be rated over the other. In other words: who goes first?

Vancouver and Surrey have tried to avoid that conflict.

“We each need transit,” the mayors have said. “Let’s build both together.”

So rather than competing for dollars to proceed with SkyTrain on Broadway or three light-rail lines in Surrey, Gregor Robertson and Dianne Watts were making the case that both could happen at the same time – up until last month.

“Vancouver should pare down its overly ambitious plan for a $2 billion-plus buried SkyTrain line along Broadway toward UBC,” said Surrey mayor Watts in the local press. “We can have all the grandiose ideas that we want, but unless that sustainable funding policy is in place, nothing’s going to happen.”

So what should Vancouver do?

Vancouver should suggest that Surrey go first. And then try to follow as a very quick second.

In part, that’s just recognizing the inevitable: there’s no way Vancouver would find the votes around the regional table to allow the Broadway corridor to go first. Who would vote to, yet again, bump a suburban municipality down the list so that Vancouver can get yet another hugely expensive rapid-transit line? For Broadway to proceed before Surrey would mean depriving a part of the region that has the only tolled bridges, the one with the fastest rate of growth, the one paying over $100 million a year to TransLink, with few improvements to show for it.

And then be asked to pay more for Vancouver’s benefit.

Vancouver would be lucky to get a single additional vote.

Regardless, Vancouver is going to be engaged internally in a huge debate over technology, construction impacts, route and potential rezonings. How likely is it that it could resolve all that before Surrey is ready to lay track – which is practically right now?

Sometimes coming in second is the winning strategy. Vancouver, if it’s realistic, should be getting behind Surrey to ensure a regional consensus, a united front and a chance to come in quickly – with Surrey’s support – to push forward on Broadway.

Meeting the challenges of regional consensus is daunting enough, much less convincing the province to follow through. But we did it before. And it worked. To do so again will be as critical to the region’s future as the decisions made nearly a half century ago were to Vancouver’s.

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