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Vancouver gears up for great transit debate

While many of us are sipping eggnog and eating turkey over the next few days, others won't be so lucky. I'm talking about the hapless souls who will be spending the holiday period mapping out final strategies for the great transit debate that is going to break out in Metro Vancouver in the New Year.

At this point, the public doesn't know much about a proposal by the regions' mayors to implement a 0.5-per-cent congestion improvement tax to help fund a $7.5-billion transportation plan. Internal polling done for the mayors' council showed that only 30 per cent of people living in the region were aware of the upcoming referendum on the matter and what it is, specifically, the mayors are recommending.

That is likely to change starting in January as the forces marshalling behind a Yes vote go toe-to-toe with the coalition of the unwilling that has emerged in a common desire to see the plebiscite go down to defeat. Like all things political, this dispute could get ugly before we have a winner.

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The No side is being led by the B.C. chapter of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation under the auspices of the No TransLink Tax campaign. Personally, I think they could have found a catchier slogan that gave the group a better acronym. Something like: No Onerous Tax, or NOT!, might have worked. Then again, neither has the taxpayers' federation demonstrated much creativity when it's come to its arguments against the mayors' plan, which calls for a new subway for Vancouver, light rail for Surrey and additional buses throughout the region.

For its part, the federation seems to be completely obsessed with the region's transit provider, TransLink, and the money it wastes and the excessive number of managers it employs and the bungled programs it has attempted to roll out over the years.

(Legitimate concerns but ones that aren't completely relevant to this issue.) In fact, the vote-No brigade says little about the mayors' transit vision, which has generally received widespread praise.

Officials with the mayors' council and others at TransLink are now plotting ways to educate people about what they'll get for $7.5-billion. It's unknown what form this information program will take but it could include everything from mail-outs to TV ads. Either way, expect the No side to make a huge fuss about this. It will insist TransLink operating funds should not be used to underwrite propaganda.

The Yes side will counter that all TransLink is doing is informing the public about something that effectively stands as the regional transit plan, which is entirely within its mandate. This is unlikely to satisfy the No camp, which will try to conflate TransLink's involvement with the provincial government's position that no public funds be used to finance the campaigns of either side in this debate. That said, given this is the first plebiscite of its kind in B.C., the rules of engagement are unclear. Some of them will undoubtedly be written as we go along.

The Yes forces will have better financial backing than their opponents, which, from my standpoint as a supporter of the mayors' plan, is a good thing. The mayors have been handed a ridiculously short time-frame to pull this off so they need all the advantages they can get. Given how important transit is to the future of the region, I would not be surprised to see the Yes side try to access a couple of the top political machines in the region, the one behind Vision Vancouver being among them.

In the end, this is a vote, and winning is all about engaging your supporters. Among other things this will entail building sophisticated get-out-the-vote campaigns on the campuses of all the universities and colleges in the area. Students are going to need to back this measure in droves if it is going to succeed.

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"People are going to make individual decisions about how to vote," says Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore. "We need to ensure people know how this plan could impact them at even the neighbourhood level. We need to break it down. When you say the word 'region,' it's a big, nebulous term for a lot of people.

"When you say there are 52,000 more people expected to move into your community in the next 10 years and this is how this plan will help alleviate the influx that's going to occur, they suddenly get it."

The transit vote, ultimately, is a hearts-and-minds campaign. And the war to win them over is about to begin.

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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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