Newsmaker of the Year: Transit vote divided Langley and the region

When the votes were counted in the Metro Vancouver Transit Plebiscite, Langley – and some of its residents – proved to be a deciding factor.

It wasn’t just that Langley, both Township and City, voted against the proposed 0.5 per cent sales tax increase by sizable margins.

It was that local residents were prominent in the battle for votes – particularly on the winning No side.

Jordan Bateman, a former Langley Township councillor now with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, led the No TransLink Tax campaign.

When the votes were finally counted and unveiled in early July, Metro residents had rejected the tax and the extensive plan, 61.68 per cent to 38.32 per cent.

In Langley Township, the No side commanded 74.97 per cent, in the City, 72.29 per cent.

The roots of the vote were caused by the decision of the B.C. government to allow no new funding sources without a referendum. The Mayors’ Council which controls TransLink’s purse strings was equally determined to avoid jacking up property taxes. The Mayors’ Council put together an extensive plan for new transit routes and projects, and suggested the sales tax to fund it. The entire thing had to be put to a vote.

Bateman cast the No side as the David facing a massive Goliath.

“We were outspent 170 to one,” he noted.

On the Yes side were most of the mayors in Metro Vancouver, environmentalists, union leaders, transit advocates, and TransLink itself.

But the No side did have a potent weapon – the public, particularly in the suburbs, has not been fond of TransLink for a long time.

In the run-up to the municipal elections in 2014, Bateman said a poll in Langley Township showed that public opinion on various local agencies ranked TransLink far, far down in the bottom, well below ICBC, for example.

“That helped shape our strategy on the ballot question,” Bateman said.

Another big help was a debate between Bateman and political pundit Bill Tieleman at a Greater Langley Chamber of Commerce meeting in January.

Earlier that week, Bateman and Tieleman had clashed on the radio, and Bateman felt it hadn’t gone as well as he would have liked.

On the night of the chamber meeting, Bateman spent most of his time slamming TransLink and its past management.

“TransLink wastes too much of your money to give them another nickel,” Bateman said, the core of the argument that would run throughout the campaign. He cited overpaid executives and the fiasco of the long-delayed Compass card system.

Tieleman argued, as did the rest of the Yes side, that Langley needs better transit including extra buses and a light rail extension that would link Langley City to the SkyTrain system.

But the long wait – more than a decade – for light rail was also an issue raised by the No side.

Langley had less unity when it came to prominent residents than most other communities. While City Mayor Ted Schaffer and Township Mayor Jack Froese both spoke up for the Yes side, the Chamber of Commerce broke with its neighbouring chambers and opposed the tax.

Local merchants were worried that shoppers would flee to the east, heading to Abbotsford and avoiding the extra 0.5 per cent tax.

Local opponents also pointed out that the plan for transit expansion still included nothing for the Gloucester Industrial Estates, despite numerous calls for bus service to the area over the past decade.

Letter writers to the Langley Advance debated the issue, with the No side saying TransLink was not trustworthy and couldn’t handle the money it had.

Those on the Yes side argued that nothing would change with a No vote.

Because there was a mail-in ballot, voting stretched from March 16 to May 29. Both the Yes and No campaigns had to contend with getting their message out over the lengthy period.

When the votes were finally counted, it wasn’t even close.

“They had everyone but the voters,” Bateman said.

The message could be interpreted in different ways, Froese said.

“Some say it was against TransLink, some say it was against new taxes,” said Froese.

In the wake of the July announcement of the results, little has happened regarding more transit service.

Bateman, who is in favour of more transit, had called for municipalities to put aside a portion of their annual tax revenue growth.

Local mayors said that would amount to cutting other services or raising property taxes, which they are still loathe to do.

“It seems no one has come up with a resolution yet,” said Froese.

As the year wound down, Peter Fassbender, the minister for TransLink and a former City mayor, was suggesting that the province might not be as tied to a plebiscite for new taxes as it once was. The federal Liberal government made a number of promises on infrastructure spending and the provincial government is still looking for partners. The Mayor’s Council still wants to fund its plan and doesn’t want to raise property taxes.

TransLink still doesn’t have the funds to expand service on a major scale.

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