Taxis figure heavily in the BC Liberals election platform. But it’s a delicate balancing act for the party.
The Liberals want to seem hip to millennials, who are demanding to get around by Uber. Vancouver is the last major city where the leading ride hailing app is banned. Prominent Liberal backroom strategist Dimitri Pantazopoulos was registered, until April 4, to lobby the Liberal cabinet on behalf of Uber.
But the Liberals don’t want to alienate voters from the South Asian community, the source of many of B.C.’s taxi drivers.
It took until March 7 for Transport Minister Todd Stone and Taxis and Transit Minister Peter Fassbender to announce their long-awaited, “made in B.C.” scheme to allow ridesharing in B.C.
If re-elected, the BC Liberals say they will let Uber and Lyft operate as soon as this Christmastime.
In the meantime, they plan to spend $1 million of taxpayers’ money on an app for taxis (even though the big companies already have one, called eCab) and $3.5 million for crash prevention/detection technology (which will be standard anyway in upcoming Toyota models).
A month after the announcement, Stone heralded the Passenger Transportation Board’s surprise granting of 175 new taxi licences to the five-company cartel in City of Vancouver. Twenty-six of the licences will be for wheelchair accessible vehicles.
Sources tell theBreaker that taxi owners are worried competition will devalue their licences, so they are lobbying the Liberals for a buy-back program to soften the blow.
The issue is politically sensitive in key ridings in South Vancouver, Abbotsford and Surrey. The election may be won or lost South of the Fraser.
Fassbender won his seat in Fleetwood by just 200 votes in 2013, to give the Liberals a 5-3 advantage in Surrey. With redrawn boundaries, Surrey will have nine ridings in the May 9 election. Fassbender is worried about defeat, so he was the first to open a campaign office last September. The party’s Elections BC returns for 2016 show that headquarters transferred a whopping $69,142.21 into Fassbender’s campaign account. Only failed by-election candidates Joan Isaacs and Gavin Dew got more.
While the Liberals were hoping to set it up as a wedge issue, NDP leader John Horgan wasn’t biting. He told CKNW on March 10 that it’s “All politics all the time for Christy Clark. I tabled a bill three years ago to make sure if new entrants were coming to the marketplace, let’s make sure it’s done in a way where it balances the needs of the public as well as the existing business that have operated here.”
theBreaker asked Fassbender’s ministry, under the freedom of information law, for a copy of the business case and cost-benefit analysis behind the March 7 announcement.
On April 20, the government sent a heavily censored copy of a KPMG report called B.C. Taxi Licenses and Potential Implications of Ride Sourcing. The 31-page, Oct. 6, 2016 report was billed as a “review of initial desktop research.” The government is clearly afraid for voters to know how the policy samosa was made.
The government speculates that disclosure would harm government finances and intergovernmental relations. It also claims the KPMG report contains protected recommendations and advice — even though the law states that the government cannot withhold a feasibility study or a report on field research used to formulate a policy.
theBreaker will appeal to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
KPMG has donated $361,844 to the Liberals between 2005 and 2016. The firm studied the industry in five Canadian cities, three in the U.S. and Australia’s State of Victoria. Only the page about Quebec’s one-year Uber pilot program was substantially visible.
KPMG had previously studied the taxi and limousine industry for the City of Ottawa in 2015. Unlike the secretive B.C. government, Ottawa city hall published its report.
The national capital report included a section on the Uber-outlawed, Vancouver market. Unlicensed drivers are subject to $1,500 to $5,000 fines. The market has 3,077 taxi drivers using 588 standard permits and another 99 for Fridays and Saturdays only.