Who should pay for mass-transit expansion? It's a dilemma in B.C., too

Provincial leaders have committed to expanding the SkyTrain, but they're wrangling with local mayors and the public over what type of tax to levy, and whether it should penalize people who drive the most.

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B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell recently resigned over backlash from a new tax.

Provincial leaders have committed to expanding the SkyTrain, but they're wrangling with local mayors and the public over what type of tax to levy, and whether it should penalize people who drive the most.

In spite of a funding stalemate, work is already starting on a high-speed SkyTrain called the Evergreen Line, extending the existing Millennium Line through British Columia — beyond Burnaby east to Coquitlam. It's a firm promise from the provincial government.

But sometime in the next 90 days, the local mayors and the provincial government have to make up their minds how the region is going to pay for it.

Will it be with yet another property tax increase, or through a fee that aims to influence how we drive around the region? Is Metro Vancouver ready for so-called transportation demand management (TDM) funding? That method rewards people who drive less — some combination of vehicle levy, tolls, road pricing, high-occupancy lane tolls, congestion fees or fuel taxes?  

Building the Evergreen Line has been the top regional transportation priority since the mayors along the route were pressured into supporting the Olympics-related Canada Line from Richmond and the airport into downtown in 2004. The success of that line has exceeded everyone’s expectations (except the cabbies whose airport-to-downtown business has all but disappeared). Ridership levels set for 2015 are already being achieved, partly because so many public transit first-timers discovered its ease of use during the Olympic traffic shutdowns.

The mayors of Vancouver's northeast suburbs agreed to the Canada Line because they were promised their route, the Evergreen line, would be built next. It is still the top priority, notwithstanding pressure from the City of Vancouver to put a rapid-transit line along Broadway, the major arterial leading to the University of British Columbia (UBC). Passengers on that line sometimes wait for up to three buses to go by to find one that isn't full.

There's only one catch: Residents of the region must raise $400 million to pay their share of the costs. The federal government is in for about a third of the $1.4 billion cost of the Evergreen Line; same for the province. But TransLink, the regional authority whose board reports to a council of local mayors, can’t get the mayors and the province to agree on which funding tool will be used.

The province wants the money to come from a property tax increase — a simple, familiar measure that typically directs taxpayer anger toward the municipalities that mail out property-tax notices. The mayors are adamantly opposed to any more property tax increases. Their residents are already staring down future regional property tax increases — on top of this year’s 5.8 percent boost — to pay for two new sewage treatment plants costing $1.2 billion, plus ongoing bills for an $800 million-plus water purification project on the North Shore mountains. And more big spending, for incinerators, is expected soon.

Nor will the mayors say they’re ready for the TDM-variation on the table: a sliding vehicle levy, with reduced fees for fuel-efficient cars. It was hard enough for them to approve this year’s mix of minimal increases in property taxes, fares, fuel taxes, and downtown parking taxes just to keep TransLink’s existing operations limping through to next year. With Surrey alone growing by 1,000 people every month, that didn’t include any money for more buses, new routes, or even putting the brand new third Seabus into operation between downtown and the North Shore. It’s still tied up at the dock.

The province has publicly committed to getting the Evergreen Line built, and RFPs (Requests for Proposals) are about to go out for construction bids. Fine, say the mayors, then you say how we should pay for it. You take the blame.

Unlike other TDM measures, the vehicle levy is already allowed in TransLink’s enabling legislation, but it has never been used for fear of political outrage from suburban drivers. They're still stuck in their cars for lack of transit options. TransLink says it has polling to prove that drivers will accept its proposed variable vehicle levy — officials are calling it a Transportation Improvement Fee — because it rewards fuel-efficient cars. It was tried once before, but rebuffed by the provincial government of the day.

The mayors would love to tap the province’s new carbon-tax revenues, set to increase dramatically in 2012. But the province has pledged that all carbon-tax money will be revenue neutral, offset by a tax reduction elsewhere, or by a check mailed back to low-income taxpayers.

New legislation allowing tolling on existing bridges, not just the new ones where tolling is now permitted, is another possibility. But the B.C. Liberals are in no mood to take on responsibility for a new tax. Their leader, Premier Gordon Campbell, recently resigned over backlash from a Harmonized Sales Tax, even though it didn't even add to the tax load.

So the two sides sit staring each other down, with property-tax increases favoring the suburban multi-car families, and the vehicle levy favoring car-less transit users in Vancouver. The province has given the region three months of breathing room to work out a deal.

"If you live in downtown Vancouver and you don't need a car, [with a vehicle levy] you're sitting there thinking, 'I'm OK, I don't have to pay,'" TransLink Mayors Council Chair Peter Fassbender, the mayor of Langley City, told B.C. Local News.

"If you live south of the Fraser — say Surrey or the Langleys — you say, 'My family needs two or three cars. We've got kids. We need to get around. But we get dinged three times because we have three cars.'"

"I have some mayors who are absolutely pulling their hair out if we're even thinking about property tax. And equally, there are mayors pulling their hair out if we go to vehicle levy."

The mayors are counting on a more conciliatory approach from the province to deliver them either a vehicle levy, or maybe carbon-tax revenues. One thing is certain: Improving transit will cost more than we're paying now, and any solution will be politically painful.


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