Imagine those groups also spending $ 5 million on ads and billboards and flyers and phone banks to convince voters that a) Gateway is bad or b) Gateway is good.
That’s a fantasy scenario here.
B. C. Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon simply announced the Gateway project two years ago and public input since then has consisted of information meetings, angry letters to the editor or calls to radio shows, and whatever can be achieved by impromptu lobby groups.
But the fantasy scenario has been a reality for almost a million voters only 200 kilometres away.
People in three Seattle- area counties got to campaign and vote on what’s called Proposition 1, a mammoth $ 18- billion, 20- year plan aimed at solving traffic problems in one of the U. S.’ s most notorious cases of urban gridlock.
It included plans to add 300 kilometres of road, replace two bridges, and build 80 kilometres of light rail from Everett to Tacoma, with a side spur to Redmond in the east.
Proposition 1 — which was narrowly defeated on Nov. 6 during civic elections — is also an object lesson to everyone in B. C. about what might happen here if the public had a say.
Until the vote, both sides were fighting frantically to win the hearts of voters, who seemed to be evenly split in their opinions, according to polls.
Some of the arguments sounded uncannily like the same ones Metro Vancouver residents are hearing.
The anti- Prop- 1 groups, in particular, focused on the negative environmental impacts.
The Sierra Club came out strongly against the proposition, in spite of the 80 kilometres of light rail and the transit investments, because of what the local spokesman admits is a much more hardline attitude to road- building than environmental groups had even two years ago.
“ There was a long time that lasted until a couple of years ago where the debate was, ‘ How much roads versus how much transit?’” said Mike O’Brian. He was speaking at the tail end of a rally, held a few days before the final vote, during which about 30 supporters demonstrated outside an American mayors’ conference on global warming where Clinton and Gore were speaking.
Now, O’Brian said, populist environmental groups like the Sierra Club are saying they don’t care how much transit planners add to any transportation package, they just won’t accept anything that adds road space.
“ Roads just fill up in urban areas, so 180 miles of more roads is 180 miles of more emissions,” said O’Brian.
That’s certainly how Julie McCoy felt.
McCoy brought her five kids, all dressed in polar- bear costumes, to the rally to support the cause.
“ Global warming is real, it’s here, it’s bad,” said McCoy, who lives in the north- Seattle neighbourhood of Broadview. “ We feel like all of our resources need to go to fixing transit.”
The pro- Proposition 1 side arguments also sounded eerily familiar.
“ Vote ‘ Yes’ to unclog major traffic choke points [ and] fix our roads,’” said one piece of campaign literature. Another emphasized that “ improving freight mobility will allow our region to compete in an expanding global economy.”
But there were also differences between the U. S. and Canadian debates, because of how the U. S. system works. There, voters have to be sold on supporting initiatives and are much more likely to think about the negative tax impacts.
Proposition 1 would have meant sales taxes rising from 8.9 to 9.5 per cent and the cost of what Seattleites call car tabs, part of the car licence system, would also rise.
That’s much different from here, where big regional transit projects are not voted on directly by the public, and voters don’t always see an immediate link between the project and their taxes.
Here, the Gateway project was largely driven forward by a coalition of businesses that got together in the late 1990s and successfully lobbied the provincial government for the project.
It has been opposed by Metro Vancouver, Vancouver and Burnaby city councils, two impromptu opposition coalitions, and every environmental group around.
In Seattle, Proposition 1 was crafted by two different public organizations — the Seattle equivalents of TransLink and Metro Vancouver — and was supported by a coalition of city councils or individual councillors from around the region, labour groups, business groups and even some environmental groups. Although the Sierra Club was opposed, other groups like the Tahoma Audubon Society, Washington Environmental Council and Transportation Choices Coalition endorsed the project.
All of that meant that there was a lot more for transit and light rail put into the project, in an effort to make it attractive to voters worried about road- building. And there was a much broader coalition campaigning for it.
That kind of process is definitely more stressful than Canada’s, admitted one of main pro- Proposition 1 organizers.
Aaron Toso, working with Keep Washington Rolling, also acknowledged that “ some of these decisions might be better made by a group of transportation- planning experts.”
In a big project like this, it can become easy for people to vote against the whole project because they don’t like some part of it.
But ultimately, Toso said, he thinks the American system works better.
“ I’d go with our way. It’s vital for the community to be supportive and we have seen a broad consensus. And I don’t think a central authority can know what every neighbourhood needs.”
As it turned out, Toso was doomed to be disappointed by voters who didn’t buy into that consensus.
About 55 per cent of those who voted rejected Proposition 1 last Tuesday.
Within that group, almost half voted against it because they objected to the higher taxes they’d have to pay.
But 20 per cent voted against it because of the globalwarming impacts.
They were people like Amie Marston and Diane Schumacher, who were both waiting at the bus stop across the street from the Sierra Club rally.
Marston, an analyst at the University of Washington and city resident who’d been issued her ballot and voters’ guide a couple of weeks earlier, had already voted against it.
And suburban commuter Diane Schumacher was sounding equally unenthusiastic.
Neither like the increased taxes.
But neither thought it did enough to get people off the road. In fact, it encouraged them.
“ I haven’t owned a car in five years, so I feel like in Seattle, we’ve got it figured out,” said Marston. “ But then we’re asked to subsidize people even more who choose to live in the boonies.”