Taking Gertie to the Polls: BC’s Next Transit Referendum (& One You’ve Likely Never Heard Of)

Gertie lawn sign

A transit funding referendum lawn sign on Gabriola Island asks residents to vote yes on February 13, 2016.

We all know what happened with that rather unfortunate (insert additional adjectives of your choice here) transit referendum that occurred last spring in Metro Vancouver.

What you may not be aware of is that there’s another transit referendum happening right now on Gabriola Island, BC, a 20 minute ferry ride from downtown Nanaimo in BC’s Gulf Islands archipelago. Between now and general voting day next Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, islanders are set to head to the polls to say whether they support establishing an ongoing contribution from property taxes to fund transit in their community.

As described in detail in the post Taking “Gertie” on a Tango Through Transit Planning Basics, transit on Gabriola is currently served by a community bus pilot project called GERTIE (Gabriola’s Environmentally Responsible Trans-Island Express). Started in June 2013, GERTIE is separate from the Regional District of Nanaimo (RDN) Transit System and is a community-operated service that has no provincial cost-sharing through BC Transit. (It also features some fine singers; see bottom of this post).

The system is run by a group of volunteers and one paid coordinator, with funding up until now coming from community donations and a vehicle grant from the RDN.  However, GERTIE’s pilot project period is slated to finish at the end of May 2016.

GERTIE's Coordinator Trevor Gear speaks with Gabriola Island News' Andy Rollerson. To see the interview, head to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSQPe1y9vWY&feature=youtu.be

GERTIE’s Coordinator (and one of its drivers) Trevor Gear speaks with Gabriola Island News’ Andy Rollerson. To see the interview, head to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSQPe1y9vWY&feature=youtu.be

In response to the pilot’s end, the Regional District of Nanaimo has created an opportunity for residents and property owners of Gabriola, Mudge and De Courcey Islands (the RDN’s Electoral Area “B”) to vote on “Transit Contribution Assent” to fund transit and keep GERTIE rolling on an ongoing basis.

Essentially, this referendum asks voters whether they are in favour of the RDN adopting a bylaw to:

  • Establish a service agreement through which this new area function of transit will be funded
  • Collect annual funds through property taxes to contribute to the service (up to a stated maximum).

I’m paraphrasing the actual referendum question to simplify it.  You can see the exact wording of the question and a detailed staff report providing background on the referendum on the RDN website.  And of course the GERTIE website itself provides a wealth of information on the transit system, how it serves Gabriola and frequently asked questions about the referendum.

Of Referendums and Rural Communities

I thought I’d point out the GERTIE referendum because I use the system when I’m on Gabriola and I’ve featured it in this blog before.  Even more so, I thought I would highlight it since I don’t think many urban dwellers understand that a transportation referendum of this nature is a relatively common occurrence in BC’s more rural towns and areas.

For those tuning in from other places, a “regional district” is the BC equivalent to what is often known as a “county” in other provinces and states; it may included both municipalities and unincorporated “electoral areas.”

In communities of all sizes outside of Metro Vancouver, its the sponsoring local government that decides and approves transit service levels and improvements.  While First Nations, Health Authorities and other entities may also be local partners in a system, the sponsoring local government is typically either a Commission (in the case of the Victoria Region) or a municipality (such as the City of Kamloops) or regional district (such as the RDN).

Creation of new service functions within a regional district (such as extending new transportation or recreation services to an electoral area) or increases to the funding of those functions beyond a certain threshold require a bylaw similar to what is described for GERTIE.

OK Falls Bus

The Okanagan Falls bus on its first day of service in January 2015. (Photo and story: Okanagan Falls Daily News – https://okfallsdailynews.wordpress.com/2015/01/19/ok-falls-local-bus-rolls-into-town/)

While throughout BC decisions on transit are commonly made by elected officials at the Board and Council level, often in the case of new initiatives in more rural areas regional district Boards choose to seek electorate support.  This may be done through a public vote (like what’s underway on Gabriola) or through what is known an “Alternative Approval Process” (which is what most folks would think of a “counter petition.”)

Over the past couple years there have been transportation-related examples of both types of processes in BC communities:

  • In the spring of 2014 the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen in BC’s southern interior used an Alternative Approval Process to confirm resident support for a new transit service to Okanagan Falls and other areas south of Penticton.  The resulting new routes 20 Okanagan Falls/Penticton and 21 Okanagan Falls Local launched in January 2015.

    An Alternative Approval Process (AAP) essentially posts the proposed bylaw once and then a second time and if no resident opposition beyond 10% of registered voters is received within a 30 day period via “elector response forms,” it goes through.

  • ln November 2014 (in tandem with local government elections), voters in both of the province’s two “CRDs” headed to the polls to also cast ballots on transportation.  In the case of the Cariboo Regional District, voters were asked to approve a funding increase to support handyDART services for people with disabilities living in rural areas outside of Quesnel.  In the case of the Salt Spring Island electoral area of the Capital Regional District, the vote was to increase the taxation threshold to implement pedestrian and cycling improvements.  Both votes passed.

Is Transit Worth the Price of a Cup of Coffee a Month?

Standing in front of many city councils and regional district boards over the years, I’ve been asked by elected officials on many occasions “whether transit is worth it.”  My typical response has been to tell them that transit is as vital to the health, citizen equity and basic functioning of their communities as water and garbage collection.  It’s part of what makes the essential connections of a city happen, enabling the education, employment, access to services and civic participation of all residents.

I stand by those words today just as much as I did when I first showed up to my job in transit 20+ years ago.  Which is why on a personal level I found Vancouver’s referendum and its result so unsettling and regressive.

That said, my typical response to the “whether transit is worth it” question was always harder to play in communities of a more rural nature, since often those areas didn’t have the “water service” and “garbage collection” I was referring to in my analogy.  Over the past two decades, though, I have seen a shift in terms of how residents in smaller towns perceive transit.  Whereas once a number seemed to see it as “big city trappings,” there seems to be a growing group that believes that access to transportation matters in big towns and small.

Yes, it looks different and yes it serves far different populations depending on the size of the community, but the essence of its objectives is the same.

GERTIE’s community group estimates that if the referendum is successful a typical property owner will pay an additional $38 per year to continue its homegrown transit service, or $3.18 a month.  The GERTIE group equates that to delivering a lot of value to residents, property owners and the Island’s many visitors for “the price of a cup of coffee per month.”

We’ll check back in next weekend to see whether Gabriola, Mudge and De Courcey voters agree.  Until then, I leave you with something I’d NEVER before seen in all my years of transit.  Here’s the bus drivers of Gabriola singing in support of their system at the island’s annual salmon barbecue last year. Cheers.


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