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Denver’s transit-referendum redemption a lesson for Vancouver

After the failure of its referendum in 1997, Denver's transit authority knew it had to be far better prepared the next time it asked the public to approve an ambitious transportation expansion project.

The Regional Transportation District (RTD) also understood that it might take a few years before it was ready to again ask people to support a small hike in the sales tax to pay for a buildup of the region's transportation infrastructure. In fact, it would be seven years before the RTD felt confident enough to again seek that endorsement.

"There are so many things that you need for a transit referendum to be successful," said Pauletta Tonilas, senior manager of public relations for the RTD. "You need broad-based support, an effective ad campaign and, above all else, you have to have a good reason for doing it. If the project is legitimate, then you should be able to convince people of its merits."

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The 2004 campaign was mostly led by the Denver Chamber of Commerce, which had the help of a consulting agency specializing in mounting winning referendums. It designed a $3.7-million (U.S.) Say Yes campaign, which included an aggressive television and print advertising blitz.

One of the first things referendum organizers did was assemble a broad-based coalition of organizations that supported the RTD's vision: more than 160 kilometres of new light rail and commuter rail and nearly 30 kilometres of new bus rapid transit, among other improvements.

In the end, the project would receive the backing of an array of businesses, environmental outfits as well as organizations representing the disabled, the elderly and the financially disadvantaged. Politicians of all stripes jumped on board the $4.7-billion project that was to be financed by a four-tenths-of-a-per-cent increase in the sales tax.

The message to voters was simple: for just four pennies on a $10 purchase, FasTracks will make life simpler for everyone in the Denver region. The economic benefits of FasTracks were also highlighted – the creation of 6,213 direct and indirect jobs. And then there was the promise that FasTracks would ease congestion that was only going to get worse with Greater Denver's population set to grow by nearly one million people over 10 years.

"A transit referendum has to have solid regional support if it's going to succeed," said Ms. Tonilas. "So, there needs to be a little something in it for everyone. Then you need to go out there and sell it like crazy. You really need to spend a lot of time educating people about the benefits. They need to know what they're voting for before they step in the booth."

In Denver's case, the text of the ballot question in 2004 was almost 300 words long. It is doubtful that many people read it before saying yes or no. Most of the public was aware the question was related to FasTracks, something it had been hearing about not just for months, but years.

It's a lesson for any jurisdiction planning to hold a transit referendum: success is in the planning and the selling.

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FasTracks was approved 58 to 42 per cent – an inverse of percentage that defeated a similar proposition seven years earlier. A number of factors, including the 2007 financial crisis and an increase in the cost of construction materials, have since boosted the final cost of the project to more than $7-billion. There have been other snags along the way that have threatened the completion of some aspects of the original plan – or at least jeopardized the likelihood that they'll be finished on time.

Besides Denver, Seattle, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, among others, have also been successful in getting the public to approve large-scale transportation initiatives. Last July, however, voters in Atlanta rejected a plan to increase the sales tax by a penny to finance a $6-billion transit expansion – a verdict that hurt the city's fiscal reputation.

Because of Atlanta's strained transit operations, Moody's downgraded the city's credit rating as a result of the vote. It was a clear indication of just how important transportation is to the economic health of a region.

"Conducting a successful transit referendum really comes down to strong leadership that has the passion and courage to move forward with the initiative," said Ms. Tonilas. "In Denver we like to say one region, one mission. It took a whole region to bring FasTracks to life and it will take a whole region to get it done."

An important lesson for the B.C. government and Metro Vancouver politicians contemplating their own transit referendum.

Thursday: The challenge facing Metro Vancouver mayors wanting a transit expansion project of their own.

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Follow me on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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