Unknown Victoria

Victoria: The Unknown City is a guidebook to an eccentric town on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. This is the author's blog. Look here for Victoria lore, updates and additions to the book, and hate mail.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Referendum Question

This post is nearly 10 years old, but it still seems relevant, given that the City of Victoria and District of Saanich will likely ask their voters a question on amalgamation in the autumn of 2018, and Victoria will probably hold a referendum on borrowing money to replace Crystal Pool. Enjoy! RC

[October 2008:] My absentee ballot for the U.S. election recently arrived in the mail from Seattle. I’m a dual citizen, and with little surprise to anyone, I’m voting for Barack Obama.

What is a surprise are all the other questions on the ballot. Along with elections for state positions from governor to commissioner of public lands, and several judges, I’m supposed to vote on eight different amendments to the King County charter. I’m asked to consider a sales-tax increase to expand Seattle’s rapid transit, and a property-tax levy to upgrade Pike Place Market. There are three citizen-initiated propositions too – including a law permitting assisted suicide.

Quite a contrast to elections on this side of the border, where we do little more than mark an X beside a name, then go home and sulk for another four years.

Political scientists say this difference exists because Canadians retain the British tendency to defer to the Crown, whereas revolutionary Americans make a point of leaving decisions to We The People. But as I noted last month, democracy in Victoria 50 or 100 years ago was far more American in practice, especially in municipal elections. Victorians went to the polls every year to elect their councillors (and police commissioner) until 1973, and the ballot nearly always included one or more referendum questions, asking for voter authorization on everything from construction of the Johnston Street bridge (approved in 1920) to Sunday shopping (1981).

Consider the variety of referenda held in our region’s four core municipalities, over the space of a decade:

1956: Voters in Victoria, Saanich, Esquimalt and Oak Bay turn down a $5.6-million region-wide school construction program. Saanich residents vote in favour of refinancing their waterworks, and building another library. Oak Bay voters approve construction of a new municipal hall, and ban the sale of raw milk.
1957: Victorians approve a new library agreement with surrounding municipalities.
1958: Victorians vote 3,992 to 1,994 in favour of amalgamation with Saanich, but Saanich residents are two-to-one against it, 5,090 votes to 2,731. Victorians also approve construction of the View Street parkade, and downtown pedestrian malls.
1959: Although dentists call for fluoride to be added to city water, Victorians vote against it 6,833 to 4,031. A week later, Saanich, Esquimalt and Oak Bay residents also refuse fluoridation.
1961: Saanich voters approve sale of beer by the glass.
1962: Victorians approve spending $950,000 to create Centennial Square, including renovations of the Pantages Theatre (now the Macpherson Playhouse). Saanich residents refuse amalgamation again, but with only 55% opposed.
1963: Victorians approve a $375,000 renovation of the Fisgard Street police station.
1964: Esquimalt residents vote to amalgamate the “panhandle” region of View Royal into their municipality.
1965: Voters in five out of seven municipalities reject creation of a regional hospital authority, limiting the power of the new Capital Regional District.
(A detailed timeline of all the referendums held in Greater Victoria over the past century can be downloaded HERE.)

Since then, the capital has been returning to its deferential British roots. Victoria last went to its voters in 2002 to approve the deal for the Save-On Foods Memorial Centre, Esquimalt in 2003 for sewers, and Saanich and Oak Bay in 1999 for the $10 CRD parks levy. This election year, none of the four are asking referendum questions.

Westshore municipalities, on the other hand, are keen on direct democracy. This November 15, Sooke is asking residents whether they want to create an endowment for their regional museum. Metchosin's asking whether it should push ahead with plans to extend its boundaries. Colwood and Langford are asking residents whether they want the B.C. government to upgrade the E&N railway. A positive result in that referendum won’t legally bind Campbell’s Liberals, but it will send a message – in advance of next spring’s provincial election – that voters want action on rail transit.

“Often it’s a political decision: ‘Let’s ask our citizens’,” says Rob Buchan, Langford’s clerk-administrator, explaining Langford’s use of referenda. “A question builds interest, and we’re very active in terms of community-building.” (Notably, Langford didn’t ask voters whether they wanted the controversial Spencer Road interchange.) Besides, all municipalities use voting machines, so the cost of adding a question to the ballot is negligible. “People are coming out to vote anyway.”

Councils certainly have reason to be afraid of giving the public the last word. Why spend months planning a project if it can be nixed by cranky, lazy voters? In 2001, Westshore municipalities asked to borrow $8.5 million for water system upgrades, but the residents refused – and less than 10% of those eligible bothered to vote. Cities are also more complex than they were a century ago. Councillors oversee development planning, transit, parks and rec facilities, policing, sewage, water, and many other concerns. How could an ordinary citizen know enough about such operations to intelligently vote on them?

But that’s the cynical view. “People want to be asked. Then they’ll do the work,” says Sher Morgan, chair of the Saanich Civic League, a voters’ group that sprang up in response to the abysmal 19% turnout in Saanich’s 2005 election. Morgan did 300 door-to-door surveys of her district, and she repeatedly heard that people wanted to be more involved in municipal affairs, but didn’t know how. “Referenda are a great form of inclusion. They get people thinking,” she says. “And they might make us more respective of what councillors do.”

Most importantly, referenda might actually help the councils themselves. All too often, our councillors seem only to react to announcements or court decisions, allowing the evolution of Victoria to be dictated by developers, interest groups, city staff, or other levels of government. Many of the historic votes described above, by contrast, required politicians to draw up their own strategic plans and present them to the voters. If municipal councils started declaring their priorities – and backing them up with votes of public confidence – they might actually regain some authority.

Would you agree to a $20-per-household annual levy across the CRD to build affordable housing? Do you support a ban on non-biodegradable plastic bags and takeout food containers? Should Victoria create a network of bicycle-only streets? Considering the dire state of our oceans, would you agree to a ban on the local fishing and commercial sale of salmon? Do you approve rewriting the Beacon Hill Park trust to permit commercial events? Are you in favour of: A) amalgamating all of greater Victoria into one municipality; B) amalgamating the current municipalities into three bodies (Westshore, Victoria, Saanich Peninsula) or; C) the status quo of 13 separate civic governments plus the CRD?

Lord knows, some questions need asking.

UPDATE (November 13, 2008): A nice article by Jack Knox in the Times Colonist today about referendums and this blog. (Thanks for the hits, Jack!) If you want to pursue the debate further, there's a discussion about referendum questions on the Vibrant Victoria forum, starting here.

UPDATE (November 25, 2008): Maclean's magazine has an article about ballot initiatives in the United States. Most interesting is this bit:
Ballot initiatives got their start in the U.S. in the late 1880s in mostly western and some southern rural states, often driven by farmers wanting to wrestle some power away from state legislators they considered to be dominated by railroad interests, according to Smith. The first state to allow ballot initiatives was South Dakota in 1898, but the first state to actually use the process was Oregon in 1904.
Seems direct democracy has a strong pedigree in the Pacific Northwest. Read more here.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Tribute to Al Howie

September 1, 2011, marked the 20th anniversary of one of the most incredible feats ever accomplished by a Victoria resident: Al Howie’s “Tomorrow Run '91”, the fastest-ever run across Canada, which he completed in 72 days – at a pace of 103 kilometres, or two-and-a-half marathons, every day.

As I wrote in 2007 (previous post here), Al has been living bravely with the effects of Type 1 diabetes. So to cheer him up, friends and family presented Al with a plaque commemorating the anniversary, and a framed proclamation by the City of Victoria, making September 1 “Tomorrow Run '91 Day”. Here’s a photo of Al (at right) with Victoria Elks exalted ruler Bill Thompson, and Jeff Abbott, who first proposed the Tomorrow Run, which raised $527,400 for the Elks and Royal Purple Fund for children with special needs.

The Globe and Mail’s Tom Hawthorn wrote a great profile of Al, which you can read here. And below is a CHEK News item about the anniversary, with lots of footage of Al running in the 1990s:

UPDATE (October 26, 2014): Last night, Al was inducted into the Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame! Read the Times Colonist story here.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Commuter Rail Revival

For a few hours in 2008 and 2009, residents got an idea of what it would be like to take a commuter train between Langford and Victoria.

One Saturday in August, in both those years, Jim Sturgill ran a 70-passenger VIA Rail “Budd” car back and forth between Goldstream Avenue and the old CPR roundhouse in Vic West, as part of E&N Days, a summer celebration of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway. “It worked very well,” says Sturgill, a veteran engineer who operated locomotives on the E&N for three decades. During 2008’s one-day test, he made six round trips, taking about 25 minutes each way — a challenge for any car driver trying to reach the same destination by navigating the stop-and-go traffic on Douglas Street or Craigflower Road.

In 2009, Sturgill made seven round trips, carrying 680 people. “There were so many people wanting to take the ride,” he recalls. “Four teenagers got on the train at Langford, and I asked them if they were going to E&N Days. ‘Oh no,’ they said, ‘we’re just doing this so we can catch a bus to the Mayfair shopping centre. We wish a train like this was running all the time.’”

Back then, that wish looked certain to become a reality. In 2006, Canadian Pacific donated the E&N to the brand-new Island Corridor Foundation, and ideas flourished along the tracks. In January 2008, a group of officials from Victoria, Esquimalt, View Royal and Langford called Communities For Commuter Rail (C4CR) released a study showing that an hourly train service would cost $16 million to build, and with a one-way ticket price of $5, would only cost taxpayers $2 million a year to operate — a sum requiring lower per-rider subsidies than BC Transit’s buses. In the November 2008 municipal election, Langford and Colwood asked voters if they wanted the B.C. and federal governments to fund the E&N, and BC Transit to provide commuter rail; 93 percent said Yes. Two days later, an all-party finance committee of the provincial government said the E&N and commuter rail should be a capital spending priority. Victoria mayor-elect Dean Fortin announced: “Commuter rail from Langford to downtown Victoria is an idea whose time has come.”

[Download C4CR’s 2008 Westshore Tram Line Assessment here.]

Then it fizzled. In June 2010, consultants hired by the province to study the E&N’s viability issued reports stating it would cost $123 million to rehabilitate the entire line to Courtenay, and at least $69.5 million for Victoria-Langford commuter rail, with new stations and trains — slamming the brakes on any immediate prospect of provincial investment. The ICF tried to get a pilot commuter service running that autumn, but the B.C. Safety Authority demanded new assessments of all 24 crossings between Langford and Victoria, even though VIA had used the same route for decades. The following spring, Victoria councillors voted rail off the new Johnson Street Bridge. And all the while, BC Transit poured time and money into its $950-million plan to electrify the region with Uptown-centered Light Rail Transit.

[Download the provincial consultants’ 2010 commuter-rail analysis here.]

Now the E&N is in a perilous state. Last March, VIA’s Budd cars stopped running because of poor track conditions, and in November, VIA shipped the cars off the island. The province has said it will give the ICF $7.5 million for track improvements, but only if the federal government does too — and the feds’ decision may hinge on a just-completed assessment of the E&N’s bridges, including a century-old wrought-iron span over the Cowichan River, and the huge bridge across Goldstream’s Niagara Canyon that was built in England in 1883, erected on the Fraser River (1890s photo above left), and relocated here in 1910. Many observers quietly fear that if the bridges don’t pass, the E&N is doomed.

But would that automatically kill commuter rail? Maybe not.

The fact is, we’ve invested considerable sums in the tracks already. CRD Parks says 30 percent of the $14 million it’s put into the E&N Rail Trail has gone to rail infrastructure, such as its new Four-Mile Bridge over the Island Highway. Langford has concentrated developments around the tracks, including its new Eagle Ridge recreation centre. And Esquimalt and the province have spent $5 million on the rail crossing at Admirals Road — the potential site of a station for hundreds of people working across the street at CFB Esquimalt and Victoria Shipyards.

The key, rail advocates say, is to build up a commuter service incrementally, which would be far less expensive than the all-at-once, “platinum or nothing” mentality of the LRT plan. “Municipal operations is quite different from a provincial-scale, BC Transit way of doing things,” says Geoff Pearce, the chair of C4CR, and Langford’s former clerk-administrator. “We do what’s necessary, and if something doesn’t work, we fix it and then we go on. What we envisaged with commuter rail, starting small and growing, was totally different from what the Ministry of Transportation or BC Transit says, which is, ‘You’ve got to put in $60 million up front.’”

That incremental approach has worked elsewhere. Cash-strapped and desperate for transit, several American cities have converted old freight railways over to commuter service: one example is New Jersey’s River Line, which uses Stadler GTWs, lightweight “diesel multiple units” that roll into downtown Camden like streetcars (photo above right). Another example, even closer to our circumstances, comes from Texas: in 1994, Dallas’s transit authority bought 13 Budd cars from VIA (used ones cost as little as $100,000) and started running them on a bankrupt freight line for a commuter service called the Trinity Railway Express. Today, TRE carries 9,800 daily passengers on new trains, and has loaned out its Budd cars to build up a new commuter line in nearby Denton County:

Local commuter rail does face challenges beyond finding vehicles and money. C4CR’s $16-million scheme depended on rail coming across the Johnson Street Bridge, and so far, the City of Victoria has refused to investigate whether the new bridge could have rails embedded in its roadway, fearing increased costs and construction delays.

“It’s going to take somebody to say, ‘Hey, this is important enough, we’ll put in $30,000 to help Victoria look at that alternative. And let’s do it now rather than later’,” says Pearce, who wants to see the CRD create a regional funding formula for rail on the bridge.

There’s also the question of which entity would run the commuter service. Southern Rail, which is currently contracted by the ICF to operate the E&N, doesn’t have passenger insurance. Pearce says VIA would be the logical choice, if it brings back its Budd cars, and can be persuaded that connecting Langford and Victoria meets its intercity mandate. Alternatively, a whole new intermunicipal service could be created, or the rail system could be operated by the CRD or BC Transit.

[Download C4CR’s governance analysis here.]

Unfortunately, the last two bodies currently seem entranced by LRT. The CRD board, the regional transit commission, and local politicians have already endorsed BC Transit’s shiny plan — without much worrying about whether austerity-preaching federal and provincial governments will actually pay for it, or public opposition from The CRD Taxpayers’ Association and businesses afraid of losing two car lanes along Douglas Street.

The LRT fantasy may also cost us opportunities that are staring us right in the face. Langford’s 6,000-home Westhills development has set aside $1 million for a commuter-rail station, and a park-and-ride system connecting it to buses. But there’s a time limit, and if rail doesn’t materialize by the end of 2013, Westhills will spend that money on other infrastructure.

Jim Hartshorne, the prime project consultant for Westhills and president of the Westshore Developers’ Association, sat on BC Transit’s community-liasion panel for LRT. “And I can tell you: I don’t understand the LRT proposal. It doesn’t make sense to me. It is, in my opinion, doomed for failure,” Hartshorne says, even though BC Transit’s LRT plans include Westhills. “We will have to spend millions just to acquire rights-of-way, and design a system for a billion dollars that doesn’t appear to have a population that could support it. With the E&N, we could use the track that’s existing, and spend a few dollars to upgrade it. It’s mindboggling to me that that wouldn’t be the first thing we would do.”