Power to the People

By Brodie Blades – Senior Planner

The votes are in and being tallied for Vancouver’s recent transit referendum. Citizens of the west-coast Canadian city were asked whether they supported a 0.5 per cent  increase to the existing state sales tax for the funding of transit infrastructure.

If successful, the increase will fund a range of transit infrastructure investments across metropolitan Vancouver, including bridge replacements, new subway lines, a new light rail system, enhanced bus services and frequency as well as enhanced ferry services. This would effectively be the biggest investment in public transportation infrastructure in the city since the 2010 Winter Olympics!

Melbourne and Vancouver have long been considered comparable in many facets (not least of all ‘liveability’), which in itself begs an important question: given the comparability of Melbourne and Vancouver – and the similarities in growing populations and transit infrastructure needs – should the concept of transit referendums and tax increases be considered here?

Transit referendums and sales tax increases for transit investment are not new concepts in North America. For example, in 2010 the residents of San Francisco voted ‘yes’ (51 per cent  to 49 per cent) to support an additional $10 a year on the fee for vehicle registrations. This translated into an additional $5 million a year for street repairs, upgrades to reliability and mobility, and enhanced pedestrian safety. Similarly, 54 per cent of the residents of Oklahoma voted ‘yes’ in 2009 for a 1 per cent sales tax increase over seven years, which raised $777 million for a new light rail system, commuter lines, transit hubs, sidewalks and bicycle/walking trails.

Perhaps the most interesting is the 2008 case of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Agency (LACMTA) ‘Measure R’, which similarly proposed a 0.5 per cent sales tax increase on each dollar of taxable sales within Los Angeles County for thirty years in order to pay for transportation projects and improvements. 67.22 per cent of Los Angelenos said yes to the proposal, which seeks to reverse the trend of car-dependency within the county through transit infrastructure projects such as a LAX rail connection, new subway lines (including the ‘Subway to the Sea’ and new Green Line), freeway widening and implementation of carpool lanes.

In Melbourne, recent discourse on transit infrastructure investment has been closely entwined with political agendas as evidenced by the recent proposal for the East-West Link. The fallout from this argument has resulted in a dichotomy between public transport advocates (Doncaster Rail, new rolling stock, airport connectivity etc.) and road infrastructure supporters.

Whichever view you take, the question at large always returns to value for money and foresight - as the East-West Link’s estimated project cost of $6-$8 billion equals could equally be applied to other transit projects across our region. Perhaps it is time to remove the politics from transit investment in Melbourne and adopt a bottom-up approach that returns power to the people through a referendum/plebiscite on the issue.

Although unprecedented in Australia, Vancouver’s recent transit referendum and sales tax increase begs the question of whether the same could work here. What do you think? Would you support an increase in tax if it meant both having a direct say in transit investment as well as facilitating tangible transit infrastructure provision?

Further reading:

·         Moving a Livable Region – Metro Vancouver’s Transit Referendum: http://www.movinginalivableregion.ca/
·         LACMTA Measure R: http://www.metro.net/projects/measurer/


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