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Tough transit policy decisions tackled at BC candidates' debate

Over 250 people have transportation-related questions for B.C. election candidates -- and that's only counting those who could squeeze into a Simon Fraser University theatre Thursday night.

Candidates from all the major parties -- and then some -- plus interested voters drove, bussed, cycled and rode the SkyTrain from as far as two hours away to participate in SFU Public Square's Next Generation Transportation event. Even more constituents joined the conversation on Twitter and through the event's live webcast.

Panelists included Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure (and BC Liberal candidate for Langley) Mary Polak, BC Green Party leader Jane Sterk, BC NDP Surrey-Newton incumbent and transportation critic Harry Bains, and Vancouver-Point Grey BC Conservative hopeful Duane Nickull.

The candidates' opening statements laid down the tracks they would follow as host Shauna Sylvester led them through a dozen of the audience's questions.

"We don't even have the services to meet the needs today," said the NDP's Bains. "This all started with Victoria's lack of leadership on the issues, and them failing to work with local mayors."

Bains restated his party's commitment to engaging local communities, redirecting money from the carbon tax, and bringing the province's transportation up to speed.

Despite Bains' cutting opening remarks, the forum remained jovial.

"You've been very tame tonight; very polite and Canadian," joked Sylvester.

On many points, the candidates agreed.

Sterk and Bains weren't sold on the BC Liberals' plan for a 2014 transit spending referendum. Bains denounced it as "shirking off our responsibility as politicians" while Sterk voiced her concern with referendums as an appropriate way of gauging people's opinions.

Polak faced tough responses to a question about exorbitant spending on developing the yet-to-be-released Compass Card system (Compass is TransLink's reloadable electronic fare card). Although Polak said she believes the money will be recouped, Bains retorted that "TransLink's internal study showed there was no business case."

In turn, Nickull referenced his daughters' asbestos-ridden school, which would cost $1 million to fix, saying, "I could not for the life of me see why the turnstiles would be more important."

TransLink also came under fire for its governance policies. One audience member from Surrey asked the panelists for their thoughts on an elected board of directors representing the various regions covered by the service. Nickull and Bains said they liked the idea for its regional approach and built-in accountability to constituents, but Polak and Sterk were hesitant. They saw the potential for some regions to dominate decision-making.

Some of the questions were more popular than the answers. An audience member's suggestion that transit funding be incentive-based founded on land use data was met with applause. But it wasn't as popular with the candidates. Nickull was a fan, but Polak and Bains said they were reticent to tell regions how to govern their communities.

"You can't have the top-down decision-making as we see today," said Bains.

The forum wasn't all governance and spending; it also touched on the environmental, health and socioeconomic concerns of car usage.

In response to a question on encouraging commuters to decrease their dependency on cars, Polak said that it's a matter of "human behaviour," which requires a combination of price incentives and convenient transit options.

"I think human behaviour changes if you give them convenient, affordable alternatives to cars," shot back Bains.

Polak was also hesitant, along with Nickull, to take into account the healthcare implications of car dependency when planning transportation spending. Both noted that some areas are not amenable to walking or cycling, and some routes are unpopular with non-drivers.

Bains and Sterk weren't so hesitant.

"We [the Green Party] think the social determinants of health, the community determinants of health, should be part of our land use planning," said Sterk.

She added that she'd like to see more citizen expertise and suggestions solicited outside of the election period.

William Gibbens, running as an independent in Vancouver-Point Grey, said he asked to be part of the panel but was turned down. Gibbens, who's making transportation one of his top platform issue, said he would have presented ideas for a Surrey transportation plan.

Sylvester encourages you to keep the transportation conversation going by tweeting #bctranspo.

Natascia Lypny is completing a practicum at The Tyee. Follow her on Twitter @wordpuddle.

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