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An audacious retelling of Clark's role in Evergreen

"Christy got it done!" says a B.C. Liberal Party flyer distributed in anticipation of a by-election this spring.

Dennis Marsden, the B.C. Liberal candidate for the Port Moody-Coquitlam by-election, is running on Christy Clark's track record as premier. Her effort to put the Evergreen transit line "on track" is featured prominently in his campaign literature.

"Within months of taking office, Premier Christy Clark broke the logjam and got the Evergreen Line underway," the campaign flyer says. "The Evergreen Line had been stalled for years. It took strong leadership from Christy to get it done."

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Even by the loose standards for political spin, the audacity in giving Ms. Clark credit for moving the project forward is stunning.

After she was chosen as premier by Liberal Party members in February, 2011, Ms. Clark had to backtrack twice on the issue, once over a carbon tax and once over a fuel tax. She appeared to be floundering, attuned to neither municipal politics nor the views of her cabinet colleagues.

Meanwhile, the projected completion date for construction of the transit line kept being pushed back. The province blamed municipal leaders for the delay, but Ms. Clark's confused interventions may have also gummed up the process.

The $1.4-billion Evergreen transit line, linking Coquitlam, Port Moody and Burnaby, has been a political thorn in the side of the Liberal government for years. TransLink initially endorsed a transit line that was to be completed by 2009. However, the provincial government gave priority to construction of the Canada Line, from the airport to downtown, in time for the 2010 Olympics.

Financing the municipal contribution to the project has been a huge issue throughout the years. The federal government pitched in $417-million; the province, $583-million. The municipalities had to come up with $400-million.

Ms. Clark stepped into the debate on May 6, with an open letter to British Columbians. "In the future I am open to considering using the carbon tax to support regional initiatives, such as public transit," she stated.

Former premier Gordon Campbell had introduced the tax to encourage the reduction of carbon emissions. To ensure that the "green" initiative was not seen as a tax grab, he committed the government to using all the revenue to reduce taxes.

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The province's annual provincial budget includes a full account on how the government designates those revenues. The carbon tax will raise $1.17-billion in the 2012 fiscal year beginning April 1. All those funds and more are already committed to personal and business tax cuts, leaving no room for public transit subsidies. The budget links tax cuts worth $1.27-billion to the carbon tax.

It took less than a month for Ms. Clark's "open letter" to be shelved. Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom told the legislature in June that the Evergreen line would not be financed by the current carbon tax.

Ms. Clark fumbled the issue again in July. Metro Vancouver mayors came with a proposal to hike the 15-cents-a-litre fuel tax for transit to 17 cents. Ms. Clark balked at the suggestion.

"When British Columbians say they're not really excited about seeing more gas taxes, I get that. Because my focus as Premier is how do we make life more affordable for people, rather than less affordable," Ms. Clark told reporters. "So I'm going to give them a little more time to think about some of these issues, and we'll get into discussions with them once they come up with their best answers."

Ms. Clark backtracked more quickly this time. Two days later, she endorsed the mayors' proposal. Her flip-flop was reported as one of the factors in the decision not to hold a provincial election last year.

Last fall, the legislature approved the two-cents-a-litre increase, effective in April. Construction of the Evergreen Line is now under way, despite Ms. Clark's missteps. The target date for the start of service is the summer of 2016.

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