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What Metro Vancouver can learn from Seattle’s ‘yes’ to transit referendum

Believe it or not, our neighbours south of the border voted to pay more money for more transit.

Nearly 60 per cent of voters in Seattle said “yes” to a referendum question proposing a 0.1 per cent regional sales tax increase and a $60 per year vehicle fee to pay for more transit hours, according to ballot counts Tuesday night.

This is “excellent” news for Metro Vancouverites who can look to Seattle for lessons before the transit referendum next spring, said Bill Tieleman, who works with the local bus drivers and mechanics unions.

“Seattle has shown that you can pass referendums and people will pay for services they think they need,” said Tieleman, who drove down to Seattle to make calls for the “yes” campaign and bring lessons back north.

His top takeaway was that Seattle’s business, labour and environmental groups banded together to lobby for more transit with a collective voice.

“There’s only one way to have a chance at succeeding, and that’s a strong coalition,” Tieleman said.

There were also lessons to be learned from those who voted “no” to Seattle’s referendum, most of whom lived in suburbs and believed it was too much tax for not enough service – a story all too familiar in Metro Vancouver.

But the campaign successfully argued the addition $45 million annually would get people out of cars and ease congestion for those who continue to drive.

“Their congestion is pretty bad, it’s pretty similar to Metro Vancouver,” Tieleman said.

Metro Vancouver mayors have repeatedly asked the province for cash for rapid transit and bus service in the growing region, but the B.C. Liberals are insisting on a referendum before approving any new funding sources for the mayors’ $7.5-billion, 10-year transit plan.

Both the Liberals and the B.C. NDP have rejected a vehicle levy to pay for transit, but the appetite for the tax in Seattle (it jumped by $40, but low-income residents will get an exemption) shows the idea could be revisited, Tieleman said. (He suggested drivers with Bentleys could pay more than those with Honda Civics, if that would be more palatable to voters.)

Metro Vancouver mayors are expected to decide on a referendum question and date by December.

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