High-stakes transit tax vote in Vancouver pitting Millennials against Boomers

High-stakes transit tax vote in Vancouver pitting Millennials against Boomers

Vancouver writer Jessica Barrett chalked up a minor victory for Millennials this week when, over Sunday brunch, she convinced a friend to switch her vote in the West Coast region’s hotly debated transit-tax referendum from a “no” to a “yes.”

No one likes to pay more taxes, and saying “yes” means regional residents will pay an additional half per cent on the existing seven per cent sales tax to fund sweeping transit expansion plans across the fast-growing region.

“No” means keeping more money in your own pocket – a powerful lure for the 1.5 million voters living in the country’s most expensive urban centre, and particularly so for younger adults, many of whom are under-employed and struggling to keep financially afloat.

But Barrett, 32, believes firmly that a vote against the tax is a vote against her generation. Indeed, without the proposed improvements, people her age will be unfairly doomed to a lifetime of clogged roads, choking pollution and a public transit system that can’t possibly keep up with projected growth.

Heck, with a million more people expected to move to Vancouver and its surrounding cities by 2040, it won’t just be the Millennials who suffer.

It will be their children, and maybe even their children’s children.

‘Yes’ side says it’s looking to the future

“People who are in their mid- to late-stages of their careers now “aren’t going to be the ones who are going to be stuck in this gridlock,” Barrett told Yahoo Canada News.

“It’s those of us who are going to be picking up our kids from school and trying to get to work on time. We are going to be feeling the pinch of all of those extra bodies,” she said.

Barrett’s voice is one of many in what’s proving to be a fiery debate among left and right, young and old, car owners and cyclists, urbanites and suburban dwellers – you name it. Metro Vancouver residents have until May 29 to cast their ballot, with results of the plebiscite expected to be tallied in June.

Municipal leaders in the region are presenting a united front on the Yes side, vowing to use the tax to maintain and upgrade the region’s major roads, build new bridges, expand subway, bus and commuter train service, and add to the region’s walking and cycling networks.

The Yes campaign has also won endorsements from urban planners, academics and powerful environmental advocates, including the David Suzuki Foundation, which said the tax is the “biggest thing you can do” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the region.

This week, members of the University of British Columbia’s Alma Mater Society shared a music video set to the Beach Boys “I Get Around” to inspire young citizens to get involved.

‘No’ side seeks to avoid spending more than necessary

But many people clearly aren’t convinced. A new poll by Insights West indicates the No side has taken the lead and making significant gains among regional voters.

Jordan Bateman, head of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and outspoken leader of the No campaign, said the transit expansions promised by municipal leaders won’t ease traffic congestion – at least not enough to make it worthwhile to the citizens who will be forced to pay for it for decades to come.

Bateman’s organization has calculated that in the year 2045, after 30 years of paying the congestion tax, car ownership in the region will be reduced by just 2.2 per cent.

“The biggest difference between a Yes and No vote is that a No vote will save households an average of $258 per year,” Bateman said in a blog post on the federation’s website.

Yes supporters estimate the congestion tax will cost the average household about $125 a year.

Not just a Vancouver issue

Brent Toderian, a Vancouver-based city planner and proponent on the Yes side, said the outcome of the vote will be felt across the country.

Whether fast-growing or slow, cities everywhere are wrestling with the question of how best to pay for necessary upgrades to vital transportation corridors, from border crossings and airports to rapid-transit systems and roadways.

“The negative consequences of a No vote would be tremendous for the local region and province, and we believe would also be significant for regions across Canada struggling to develop sound plans for funding much-needed public transit investment,” Toderian wrote in an open letter on behalf of the Council for Canadian Urbanism Board of Directors.

The Canadian Infrastructure Report Card, published in 2012 by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, as well as organizations representing civil engineers and construction workers, found that one in four roads in the country is operating above capacity, highlighting what the report authors called “a real challenge to moving goods and people within our communities in the short and medium term.”

The estimated replacement cost of the roads in fair to very poor condition is $91.1 billion nationally, according to the report.

In an interview Toderian said failure to adequately ease the pressure points will hurt Canada’s competitiveness, noting well-oiled transit hubs make it easier for a city to attract the talent and capital it needs to function.

“We also know that mobility benefits the whole economy,” he said. “Building more transit allows many more trips and economic activity to proceed even though the roads haven’t changed.”

Barrett said she’s discouraged by the lead taken by the No side, but heartened by the sincere interest shown by friends and colleagues. She’s hopeful that will make the difference in the end.

“It’s my entire Facebook feed and every brunch date. It’s what we are talking about. We are full-blown obsessed,” she said.