Anti-authority/Anti-tax positions misplaced in Public Transportation vote

News of the No side taking the lead in a poll on the upcoming Metro Vancouver public transportation referendum has some questioning the wisdom of putting the proposed 0.5% sales tax increase up to a vote. Those leading the opposition has so far successfully been able to harness the frustration locals have recently had with Translink, the regional transportation authority responsible for operating public transit, over customer service and a few high profile breakdowns of Skytrain rapid transit service last year.

Whether this criticism is warranted is another question. Translink deserves credit for helping Metro Vancouver have a very respectable share of public transit users amongst North America cities, certainly when compared to comparable cities like Seattle and Portland. Yes, there are things that can be done better, but there is much being done right to move the thousands of people Translink does every day.

And fairly or not, Translink may be faulted for its mistakes, or questions about its Executives and governing structure, but the contribution our public transit system makes to our community every day cannot be denied. Not just for its users, many who do not have or choose against the luxury of driving, but for everyone, since public transit means fewer cars for other drivers to contend with, less pollution, and the more efficient movement of goods that helps keep our store shelves stocked and prices down.

Simply put, Translink consistently serves the public interest very well. In terms of the Four Dimensions utilized in this blog to assess the degree of service to the public interest, first, under Relational, Translink looks after serving everyone, including the disabled through its Handydart service as well as the special equipment installed throughout the system. It enables all members of the community as equally as possible.

Second, its Scope is extremely broad, accounting for Metro Vancouver’s complex range of economic, logistic, environmental, health, social, and political issues, not to mention the long term vision required to account to meet future challenges as reflected in the transportation plan being voted upon.

Third, in terms of Awareness, of what they know and how well they do it, Translink isn’t perfect, but it does very well given the immense pressure from the varied and heavy demands of its customers, critics, and political forces that constantly hover over the organization. There is nothing that tells me that the 6,000 employees of Translink are not making their best effort, in knowledge, skill, and effort, to meet their laudable goals of providing safe, comfortable, courteous, and reliable transit services with as much broad coverage and value for the money possible.

Finally, in Dynamic terms, public transit diversifies our transportation options and brings people together, creating opportunities and activities that would have been much less likely without it. This includes the people and goods moving efficiencies that, whatever your opinion of Translink, would be far worse without any form of public transit in the city.

The vast majority of Metro Vancouver mayors supporting the plebiscite, along with the 100-plus organizations standing along with the Yes side, also recognize the public interest benefits from approving this initiative. This level of broad-based cooperation is increasingly rare in this time of fractured political interests, especially in a metropolis with so many separate municipal governments as the 21 within the Metro Vancouver transportation service region.

This is the vital aspect of this referendum that truly distinguishes the two sides of this debate. For all of the demands and questions of the public institutions and their partners being made about the use of our tax dollars, the question those considering a No vote should be asking is in whose interests would such a choice be serving.

Questions have been raised about the money being spent in this referendum, but our leaders deserve to be commended for choosing the democratic route with this transportation plan and sales tax increase proposal. This despite the experience with the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) that voters chose to extinguish in a 2011 referendum.

However, these two ballots are considering very different issues. Whereas the HST vote raised questions about fairness and the distribution of costs, this congestion tax referendum is a call for a collective action to address a serious long term concern affecting the entire community. Such a call deserves a response that demonstrates that voters have considered the public interest when they mark their ballots.

For democracies to effectively work, voters need to consider opportunities like this referendum as a chance to express their opinion on how to improve the community they live in, not as a means to satisfy personal indignities. An anti-tax/anti-authority position appeals to our self-interests but provides no assurances anything productive for the public interest will truly be accomplished in the process. It is irresponsible to simply expect our leaders to solve the problem by themselves.

As much as our governments and institutions like Translink need to be accountable to the citizens, as I said in my previous post, it is inappropriate to use this ballot as a protest vote. We are the ones who are the cause of the congestion issue, but we can work together to help alleviate it.

For those who will vote No purely based on how that position suits their self-interests, we clearly have an ideological disagreement. Those who do appreciate the importance of public transportation investment but are still leaning to the No side, I do hope you will honestly consider the public interest in your decision.

I have a suggestion as to how our leaders, as well as voters, can demonstrate their commitment to the public interest regardless of their choice.  That will be the subject of my next post in a couple of days.


Update: Stephen Rees provided a great analysis of the No side positions on his blog on Monday.  Certainly better detailed and researched than my piece here.

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Posted in Economics, Environment, Metro Vancouver, Politics, Public Policy, Public Transit, Transportation

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