03/11/2015 16:57 EDT | Updated 05/11/2015 05:59 EDT

Transit referendum: Metro Vancouver police and fire chiefs support Yes side

First responders from across Metro Vancouver spoke in favour of a "Yes" vote in the transit plebiscite Wednesday, saying more transit service would mean faster response times, fewer crashes and less drunk driving.

Over the coming weeks, residents of Metro Vancouver will have a chance to vote by mail-in ballot on the new 0.5 per cent sales tax to fund a 10-year expansion of the region's transportation and transit infrastructure.

"Better transit means the public will be safer," said Vancouver police chief Jim Chu at a news conference in Surrey, B.C.

Chu said increasing vehicle traffic had already slowed his department's response to emergencies.

Over the past five years, travel time to "priority one" emergency calls has increased by one minute on average, according to Vancouver police data cited by Chu.

"It's a life or death situation in terms of us getting to the call quickly," he said.  "Our concern is with more congestion, those travel times will increase."

Chu said more frequent night buses, which are included in the Mayor's Transportation Plan, would also help clear the "volatile" and sometimes violent situation police face in the downtown Vancouver entertainment district.

"When the bars close at 3 a.m. we have large crowds of intoxicated people on the streets," said Chu.

"Some of the fights break out because people are fighting for the limited number of taxi cabs that are available."

'There's a cost either way'

When asked about the cost to the Metro Vancouver public of the 0.5 per cent sales tax increase proposed in the vote, the chiefs responded that the public is already paying extra for emergency services due to congestion.

"There's a cost either way," said New Westminster police chief Dave Jones.

Surrey fire chief Len Garis said the city had already spent $1 million modifying traffic signals so emergency vehicles could get through them faster, and it isn't enough to maintain their targeted four-minute response time.

"If we can't move the traffic, if we can't get through it, we need more stations and we need more people to service those calls, and that's not within our ... budget," said Garis.

Jordan Bateman, B.C. Director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, is speaking for the "No" side in the transit referendum.

On observing the news conference, he tweeted that the "Yes" side is "trotting out police & fire chiefs (who work for TransLink Mayors)" and called the news conference a "#shameful" waste of public money.

Chu, Garis and Jones said they were not asked or told by the Mayors' Council to make the public announcement.