Thursday, 29 August 2013

Once more, that darned referendum on how to pay for transit - an open letter to Brent Toderian


I just heard your interview with Stephen Quinn on CBC and your vigorous criticism of the BC Liberals’ election commitment to hold a referendum on transit funding in 2014.

I have a couple of concerns with your comments, and hope you don’t mind me sharing them with you in this public way.   I always enjoy listening to you, and I usually learn something from your discussions with Stephen, but there were two aspects of this discussion that I want to comment on.

First, as I heard you, you criticized the whole notion of conducting a referendum on whether there should be capital spending on transit.  You don’t think people should be asked whether or not to make capital expenditures on transit because, as I heard you say, transit spending should not be seen as an expenditure, but rather, as an investment, and you don't like the idea of making this question so political.  But that’s not what the referendum will be about.  The referendum will not be about whether there should be more investment in transit.   It will be about which funding mechanism should be used to pay for it.  That is a completely different question, and I don’t think I heard you or Stephen point that out in your interview.  For reference, this is the actual promise from the BC Liberal election platform:

Work with the Metro Vancouver Mayor’s Council and
TransLink to identify possible sources of funding for
transit improvements. Any new revenue sources would
then be subject to a referendum to be held at the same
time as the municipal elections in November 2014.

So, with respect, I think you were engaging in a classic “straw man” argument: you mischaracterized the political promise, and then attacked the mischaracterization. The question is not whether we should have transit.  The question is how we should pay for it.

Second, you were very critical of the idea of using referenda as a tool for making decisions about municipal government capital investments.  It was a pretty pungent critique!  Unfortunately, you failed to mention that referenda are routinely used in British Columbia for that very purpose; in fact, they are required by law.  As I am sure you will recall, City of Vancouver voters were asked on the 2011 civic election ballot whether or not to approve a $180 million dollar capital investment plan.   Such questions are regularly asked on municipal election ballots all the time.  I suppose one could single out transit as a special kind of capital spending that should not be put to a referendum, but that was not your critique: you just attacked the use of referenda as a tool for capital expenditure decisions period.  It’s all very well to drag in the usual criticism about direct democracy and California, but we actually have a very long tradition in British Columbia of using direct democracy to get voter consent for capital spending. 

I completely agree with you about one thing: our discussion about public issues is much better when we deal with the facts, complex as they sometimes are.   And most of the time you are very good at doing that very thing.  But your discussion today left me wishing you had been just a little more precise about these two rather important considerations.

Best regards,



  1. Peter Ladner sent me a direct message on Twitter, which he wasn't able to post on the blog, so I offered to do that for him, and he kindly agreed. Here is what he said:

    A couple of thoughts:

    Yes, municipalities routinely ask voters for approval for capital projects, but provinces don't. So those omnibus municipal referenda/votes are different from the TransLink one.

    Referenda on specific projects are clumsy, costly and volatile methods to determine public spending.

    But if a referendum on funding sources for transit/TransLink is such a good idea, why isn't there one on funding sources for the Massey Tunnel replacement, the BC Place roof replacement, BC Ferries' capital spending etc.?

    The apparent answer is that the provincial gov't sees transit as a secondary (undesirable?) investment, or else one it's willing to risk not doing, compared to all the others that are approved without any referendum.

    Finally, by allowing a "none of the above" option on a transit referendum, the province is not just asking for approval of methods of new funding, but on whether there should be new funding at all. This opens the region to the very real risk that transit development will go into the ditch while highway/bridge/tunnel spending goes into the fast lane.

    That disturbing second-rank status for transit is what's wrong with this referendum.


  2. Here are a couple of more thoughts, triggered by Peter's comments.

    First, my response to Brent's interview statements was based on his contention that the promised referendum would be about whether there should be funding for new transit. As I pointed out, the BC Liberals' platform promise is not about whether there should be funding for new transit, but the mechanisms for such funding. I have searched the Internet for statements by government post-election in relation to this promise, and I have found statements by Minister Stone to the effect that the government has not yet decided whether there will be a "none of the above" question on the referendum ballot. My view is that a none of the above question would not represent fulfillment of the election promise, and would raise many of the considerations that Brent himself raised in the interview. But of course we don't know what the referendum question will be yet. So I would still say Brent ought to have made it clear that he was criticizing a hypothetical referendum question, not the question which the BC Liberals promised in their election platform.

    I should also say that the main reason I have been interested in the public discussion of this issue post-election is because of the fact that this referendum was an election promise. I personally am not generally a supporter of issue specific referenda. But - and this is a critically important but - I think that governments ought generally to keep their election platform promises. I also think that people who argue against those promises - post-election - ought to explain why in their view government ought to break the promise. It's not good enough to say you don't like the idea; you need to explain why you know better about this issue than the voters who chose to elect a government that promised to do this thing. Put another way, the fact that this was an election promise changes the discourse, post-election, about the issue.

    And to take the point one step further, I get that both Brent Toderian and Peter Ladner are quite willing to say now - after the election - that they oppose this idea. My question is: did they say this (publicly) before and during the election? Did they weigh into the election debate on this policy question? If yes, then I certainly won't complain that they are continuing to express their opposition. If not, then I would respectfully suggest they are coming a bit late to the party; what they ought to have done is to try to persuade the public not to vote for the BC Liberals because of what they consider to be an ill-advised election promise to hold a referendum on the mechanics of transit spending. Or better yet, they could have contributed to the BC Liberals election platform development process, which was open to the public. Perhaps they did; if so, I applaud their commitment to that process.

    Lastly, I would say in response to Peter's question about why transit is being singled out for this treatment, that it is my observation that there is widespread, deep and strong division on the question of how to pay for additional transit. I don't think there is a similarly divided public on the Massey Tunnel replacement (although that may happen in time), or the BC Place roof replacement. And as to BC Ferries' capital spending, the fact is that BC Ferries' capital debt is not born by the public; it's carried by BC Ferries, and is not guaranteed or backstopped by the government. That's one of the great strengths of the BC Ferries governance structure: over the past decade the company has borrowed $2 billion to build 7 new ferries without adding a penny to government debt. Everytime someone (like Province columnist Michael Smyth, for example) argues that BC Ferries should be re-invented as an ordinary commercial Crown, we all need to remember that the immediate and unavoidable consequence of such a restructuring would be to add $2 billion to the government's debt.