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B.C., towns reach deal on funding transit expansion

Premier Gordon Campbell has opened the door to new ways of paying for transit that could reduce the massive property-tax bill needed to pay for the region's future expansions.

The memo of understanding was signed and issued on Thursday in a G8-style announcement after Mr. Campbell and Transportation Minister Shirley Bond met with TransLink's mayors' council at a Coquitlam golf club.

The memo said the provincial government is willing to look at reallocating some of its existing revenue to pay for transit and to talk about "potential new and innovative revenue sources" in order to create a livable, environmentally sustainable region, though it didn't give specifics.

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Many of the region's 21 mayors saw the agreement as a significant step forward that has the province agreeing to consider ways of paying for transit that it had rejected before.

"I'm very supportive of it and the vast majority of mayors supported it," said Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart. "We agree we were not absolutely opposed to any further property tax but we agreed you can't put a world-class transportation system on the backs of property taxpayers."

But the first-ever agreement with the province had other mayors and councillors worried the agreement commits the province to nothing and that local taxpayers will still end up carrying an unfair share of the load.

Critics say the agreement doesn't even mention the idea of the province using the money it's getting from the carbon tax to help pay for transit.

The agreement also specifies that TransLink should maximize the revenue taps it has under existing law. Those taps currently include only property taxes, fuel taxes, fare increases or a vehicle levy. And it also suggests the province capture development profits along transit lines to pay for construction – something that normally goes to cities.

"I think there is this imbalance," said Councillor Craig Keating, representing the City of North Vancouver at the meeting for Mayor Darrell Mussatto. "I'm unnerved that there is no specific language that applies to the province while the memo suggests specific areas for the municipalities."

Port Moody Mayor Joe Trasolini said he's really concerned the agreement will ultimately mean raising taxes for transit this year, after mayors insisted last year that that was not an option.

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"Our collective credibility is at stake," said Mr. Trasolini. "How can we as mayors go back on our word? And why not have the carbon tax in the agreement? Why not put everything on the table?"

The mayors' council plans to vote in December on a financing supplement to pay for additional major items that weren't included in last year's basic budget, like the Evergreen Line in the northeast sector or major improvements to transit south of the Fraser.

Those items went unfunded after mayors refused to increase property taxes and the province refused to consider their request for money from other sources like carbon-tax revenue or road-pricing. That led to a major public dispute between the mayors and the province, which resulted in the province ordering a review of TransLink's financial management.

Several mayors, including North Vancouver District Mayor Richard Walton and Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, were far more hopeful about what the agreement may bring.

"Is it perfect? No. But the overarching message is that we're working together," Ms. Watts said. "We have an agreement to plan together and the development of sustainable funding policy."

Mr. Walton said he sees the agreement as a sign that both sides are building trust, and there is nothing taken off the table.

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"The carbon tax isn't in, but it's also not specifically out."

Another issue that raised flags for some mayors, even those who were generally positive, was the agreement's mention of "capturing some of the increase in land value" along transit corridors and "efficient methods of obtaining appropriate zoning."

Both of those mean intervening in issues that are typically controlled by the city.

"That's an infringement on things that are the rights of the city," said Mr. Trasolini.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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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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