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B.C. mayors divided on TransLink's funding plan

A TransLink employee directs commuters to lineup for the special bus service at the Commercial-Broadway SkyTrian Station after a service disruption. The transit company is prepared to introduce a gas tax but is waiting for mayoral approval.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Lower Mainland mayors say that TransLink has to go back to the public and give people more of a chance to respond to a new transit-funding plan that includes an extra two-cent-a-litre gas tax.

"I like the package that TransLink is bringing, but it's still important for it to be presented to the public," said Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore, who said TransLink's two-week period for public input in July just wasn't enough.

He led the charge for an additional 60-day consultation period at a Metro Vancouver meeting Friday and is now waiting to see what the TransLink board will respond.

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But it's still completely murky as to whether that consultation - or anything else - will lead to a solution in what has become a local impasse on transportation funding that is Vancouver's version of the American debt-ceiling talks.

Mayors throughout the region are divided on whether they are willing to accept this TransLink proposal to come up with extra money to pay for new transit projects.

Vancouver and Surrey have been the most amenable to the new plan. Burnaby, Delta, and Richmond are the strongest opponents.

But no one - except for Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, now sidelined with a broken back - has been willing to aggressively champion a new tax in a province that has seen several outbreaks of anti-tax revolt in recent years.

If support for this proposal fails, it will be the latest in a long string of failed efforts over the past two years to find a solution to TransLink's $400-million share for the long-awaited Evergreen line to serve the region's northeast cities - and ultimately, to find a formula for paying for future transit projects.

Besides the new gas tax to start next year that would bring local gas taxes to 17 cents a litre, the TransLink board's plan includes two years of increased property taxes in the following two years, and a promise that the provincial government will come on board with some new source of funding before the end of the three years of hiked local taxes.

The plan - called a supplement because it's only for new projects beyond what is already in an agreed-on base budget for existing services - also includes improvements to bus services for the sprawling suburbs south of the Fraser River.

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The province has been pushing to get the funding in place by the end of this year, so that it can start asking for bids to build the Evergreen line.

Burnaby's forceful Mayor Derek Corrigan, leading a group of mayors opposed to the TransLink plan, said while he thinks more public consultation is always a good idea, he's never going to support the TransLink supplement.

Mr. Corrigan said local taxpayers keep getting stuck with more and more taxes from TransLink because the government-appointed board and bureaucrats make all the decisions about what will be included in the base budget and then continually come to local politicians asking for extra money to pay for the items they think mayors are mostly likely to agree to.

"We have no say in the choices they make," Mr. Corrigan said. He said TransLink has many times spent money in its base budget on things the mayors would never agree to fund through taxes if they had a say.

The most recent example he pointed to is the $170-million bill to install fare gates on the SkyTrain line, a decision that many have criticized as a waste of money because the fares lost in the open system were never enough to warrant such an expensive solution.

But TransLink board chair Nancy Olewiler, who worked energetically to sell the plan to both mayors and the media the past week, said she is hopeful that mayors will approve it in a special vote Sept. 15.

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"We're at a critical juncture now. If this supplement is approved, it shows the commitment of the region to a solution."

She acknowledged some mayors' councils have directed them not to support the plan, and that it is also getting criticized by provincial players like B.C. Conservative Party leader John Cummins.

"Members of new or expanding political parties don't help the public to understand this," she said.

Ms. Olewiler said what she heard from a majority of mayors, when the board presented the plan to them earlier in the week, was that they wanted a guarantee that they wouldn't be stuck with a big capital project if the province didn't come through with a new source of money.

She has promised to get them back a detailed schedule within a week that shows how projects will be structured so that they are only started when permanent funding is in place.

Ms. Olewiler said she is hoping the province comes up with its solutions - possibly a regional carbon tax and/or a vehicle levy - by 2013.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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