05/11/2015 04:00 EDT | Updated 05/11/2016 05:59 EDT

Vancouver pleads with residents to OK PST hike for transit upgrades

With traffic gridlock threatening to choke Vancouver roadways and politicians butting heads over how to pay for transportation infrastructure, citizens of Metro Vancouver are being given a chance to make Canadian tax history.

Vancouver residents have the power to make some dramatic changes in the way transit and road improvements get funded in their city by voting for a higher sales tax. It's the first time a proposal to increase taxes has been put directly to voters in Canada, via referendum or plebiscite.

So far, the response has been tepid.

Voters started receiving their ballots for the Metro Vancouver transit plebiscite in mid-March, asking whether they support a 0.5 per cent increase to PST to go towards transportation improvements in the region.

"It represents a cultural shift," said Lawrence Frank, professor at the University of British Columbia's School of Population and Public Health.

"The funding sources that we have relied on — such as gas taxes — are going down. So, we need a new source of funding. This represents moving the decision-making to the individual, rather than the elected official."

The proposed congestion tax will only be collected in Metro Vancouver, which would also make it the first local/regional sales tax in Canadian history.

The mayor's council on transit said the tax hike would be used to fund part of an $8 billion, 10-year transit plan aimed at reducing traffic congestion, which it estimates will cost the region $1 billion annually in lost productivity by 2045 if it isn't addressed.

"Our needs reflect a fast-growing city, and many cities across Canada are in the same situation," Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson said when the "Yes" campaign was launched.

The transit plan promises a broad range of transportation improvements, including new subways, light rail and bus routes.

However, early polls showed the "No" side leading by two-to-one margin. Those opposed to the proposed sales tax have repeatedly attacked the Lower Mainland's transit authority, TransLink, for what they say is a lack of accountability and waste of taxpayers' money.

Several weeks into the campaign, voter turnout remains low. In Metro Vancouver, 35.3 per cent of registered voters — or about one in three — have cast a ballot, according to Elections BC.

The mail-in ballots must be returned by May 29.