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SFU student unions start TransLink referendum campaign early

Municipalities aren't the only governments steamed by TransLink's "we have no money" response to requests for transit upgrades or improvements. Student governments at Simon Fraser University have spent years advocating for better transit to usher students up Burnaby Mountain and back down to the cities below, only to be met with the same response from the province's public transportation authority.

That's why despite uncertainty about the upcoming TransLink referendum -- which is supposed to decide a new funding formula for the transit authority, but as of yet comes with no official question -- both the undergraduate and graduate student unions have teamed up with the university's largest student club, Sustainable SFU, to get the word out.

"Success in these kind of things depends on long lead-up times and people being really well informed and key stakeholder groups being really mobilized. We feel strongly that students are one of those key stakeholder groups," said Julia Lane, the Graduate Student Society's coordinating and external relations officer.

Like the Lower Mainland's other large, isolated university campus, SFU students have long been frustrated with what they see as inadequate public transit services for the Burnaby Mountain campus.

"Improved transit" has been one of the top suggestions undergraduate students have made in the past decade for a change that would improve their university experience in SFU's annual first year undergraduate survey.

Previous attempts by performing and fine arts students using the 611 Alexander Street studio to get an additional route 135 bus stop outside their building have been met with resistance, while the 135 -- which is supposed to be an express bus, with less frequent stops than normal bus routes -- brakes at almost every stop in central Burnaby.

Other issues include lack of access to the 143-bus route, which the unions say comprise 50 per cent of bus trips up and down the mountain, in evenings and on weekends.

"For many of our students, that is the only way that they can get out to Coquitlam, or from Coquitlam to SFU, and there are classes and exams that run in the evenings and on the weekends. So right now they have no way of getting to campus for those times," said Lane.

So far the organizations have set up a table at the university's Club Days, which ran for three days last week, getting student input on transit to the campus, as well as their knowledge of the referendum vote. The same survey, which also asks general questions about where students live and more specific ones about their voting practices, is still available on the Simon Fraser Student Society website.

"What we're essentially trying to do is get a sense of where people are at in terms of what they know and how equipped they are to participate in a referendum," said Lane.

"Once we get a sense of that, we can be more targeted in the information that we send out to them to help them to know the kinds of things they need to know in order to vote and be an informed voter, because that's really our prerogative, that our students go out and vote in an informed way, not how they vote."

The unions say misinformation about transit options is also a battle on and off campus. They cite the recent controversy over a TransLink-proposed gondola project running from the Production Way-University SkyTrain station up Burnaby Mountain. Although TransLink did extensive research on the project's feasibility, safety, and environmental impact, some community members remained concerned about those issues.

Another misunderstanding is that the Evergreen Line, currently under construction, would shorten or simplify students' trips to the mountain campus.

"The Evergreen Line could actually increase the number of transfers for students coming from South of the Fraser [River] might have to do to get to the university,' Lane said.

Although reception to last week's outreach campaign was good, they have to keep that momentum going until November, taking into account changes in the unions' executive after upcoming spring elections, a new cohort of students in the fall, and students' supposed election apathy.

"I consistently hear that people are frustrated, that someone should do something about all the [bus stop] pass ups or the lack of service. But most people don't really know where to express that," said Chardaye Bueckert, external relations officer for the Simon Fraser Student Society, which represents undergraduate students.

"The reaction that we've seen, overwhelmingly, has been students do start off frustrated when we ask about their transit experience, and then once we explain that there's actually this avenue to potentially affect change, they go from feeling frustrated to empowered."

In addition to reaching out to students, Lane said the organizations are also reaching out to Elections BC to help facilitate students voting. November is a busy time for university students, and having a visible and well-advertised polling booth on campus could make a difference in voter turnout. But at this point much of the planning for the outreach campaign is still up in the air.

"Right now it's very hard to project further into that, because so much of the details of the referendum are yet to be confirmed," said Lane.

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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