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Opinion: Death, taxes and making regional transit a priority

regional transit by BD
Anxiously awaiting the day we can retire this overused regional transit file photo.

Sometimes, when you repeat a word or phrase enough, it begins to lose all meaning.

The name for this phenomenon is semantic satiation, which is an enjoyable turn of phrase in itself.

In researching this column, I went down a rabbit hole of repetition so deep I semantically satiated myself into a waking coma.

Regional transit—what does it even mean? I know the letters put together form words, and the words denote a phrase describing some vague concept.

But I’ve heard the words regional transit spoken so many times I’m not sure it’s even a real thing anymore—rather just something politicians say because it’s something politicians have always said.

Shake a few hands, kiss a few babies, ensure the electorate that regional transit is a priority—all in a day’s work.

In my eight years at Pique, I have personally written more than a dozen articles about regional transit, and doing a search through our archives on the topic is almost comical.

Case in point: an article I found from December 2006, titled: “SLRD committed to regional transit strategy.”

I didn’t go back further than that, but I assume this has just always been a topic of the day, and that if I looked up the inaugural issue of the Whistler Question from 1976 I would find an article featuring quotes from local elected officials recognizing the importance of regional transit.

I can’t confirm this, but I’m pretty sure regional transit was on the agenda for Whistler’s first council meeting in Pat Carleton’s living room in 1975.

I guess it’s comforting to know some things stay static in these times of global tumult and societal turbulence.

The case for getting it done is clear: with less housing availability in Whistler, more are commuting. Get their passenger vehicles off the highway as much as possible, and you get less congestion, fewer accidents and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Regional transit would help ease the employment burden for local businesses, and on health-care facilities, while also bolstering tourism in the corridor.

It is so obviously a win, in so many different areas—yet for some reason it remains a political white whale for all who utter the cursed words “regional transit.”

While there seemed to be a real sense of optimism in recent years, the unveiling of the B.C. government’s 2022 budget on Feb. 22 left elected officials in the Sea to Sky once again banging the tin mug against the bars, holding out their hats, pockets outstretched (insert your own old-timey cartoon metaphor here).

A study released in 2017 pegged the costs to get regional transit up and running at about $3.31 million—with $1.9 million of the spend to be split amongst six local governments.

In late 2018, the Sea to Sky regional transit committee—made up of Whistler, Squamish, Pemberton, the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District and the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations—proposed a funding model based on the current provincial/municipal cost-sharing formula for local transit: ridership fares, property tax and a motor fuel tax of 2.5 cents.

In July 2019, the province rejected that model.

Let me preface this next bit by saying I am not a government accountant, or an elected official, and I do realize that these decisions are never quite as cut and dry as they may appear to armchair pundits.

Local governments and elected officials have a multitude of factors to weigh with every decision they make. They also make hundreds of decisions, big and small, throughout the course of a term, each one carrying potential repercussions on other areas of daily life of the citizens they represent.

It also should be noted that the regional transit question is made more complex by the very nature of the proposed system, which would span no fewer than seven areas of authority.

But in the grand scheme of things, the hypothetical numbers attached to regional transit have always confounded me.

For something that literally every elected official, at every level, lists as a top priority (year after year, forever into eternity), it sure is taking a long time to gather the peanuts needed to get this initiative off the ground.

Yes, a gas tax model would ensure a self-sustaining service long into the future. But the province rejected that concept in 2019, telling local leaders to “get creative” on funding—and we just… asked again? Gave up?

There are literally no other funding options available to six different governments looking to pay for a relatively modestly priced transit system?

For context: Whistler’s annual project spend tends to hover around the $40 million or so range. In 2022, the provincial budget calls for $71 billion in spending.

To his credit, MLA Jordan Sturdy hasn’t let the issue die in Victoria since his party took a backseat to the NDP in 2017.

“We have a model. We have a plan. We have agreement with all the local governments, with the two First Nations. We’ve decided on a transit commission. We agree on the funding model where everyone contributes equally,” Sturdy said in the legislature last week.

“We’re five years in and no progress. No progress at all.”

The NDP has recently restated the importance of regional transit to the Sea to Sky, both in comments made by Premier John Horgan and in mandate letters issued to Minister of Transportation Rob Fleming and Minister of Environment George Heyman.

And yet, another budget season comes and goes with nothing in the way of transit concessions.

I know there are some who will offer a different philosophy—and it should also be said that the past two years have been challenging for governments, to put it lightly—but in my eyes, it comes down to a matter of priorities.

If regional transit were such a huge priority for the province, they would fund it.

And if it were a priority for Whistler and its neighbouring communities, surely they could have made it work by now.

Instead we’re left with more hopeful consultations, and another slate of municipal council candidates eagerly ensuring us that “regional transit is a priority” as they cross off all the squares on their local government election bingo card this fall.