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Business groups push for improved transit funding

A SkyTrain commuter train travels into downtown Vancouver

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Alarmed by the increasingly shambolic state of transit financing in the Lower Mainland, local business groups are quietly launching special lobbying efforts and task forces to try to find a more coherent approach.

Developers have come to embrace transit lines as they have seen that those lines are creating property booms and sold-out condo projects wherever they go.

And businesses involved in trucking and distribution now view transit as a much-needed complement to the road system.

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What they're seeing, with dismay, is the provincial government and local mayors at a stalemate when it comes to creating a well-funded, logically planned system that keeps up with a rapidly growing region.

TransLink's announcement of its proposed 2013 plan Monday, which is little more than maintenance of the existing system, was further evidence of that.

"It just seems to be going around and around with no solutions," said Anne McMullin, chief executive officer of the Urban Development Institute, which represents the region's major condo and commercial developers. "But it's access to transit that makes people looking at our products want to buy."

Her group has begun visiting Victoria to lobby for a more logical approach to transit funding.

Bob Wilds, the man who spearheaded a lobby group that persuaded the province to invest $4-billion in roads and bridges for the Gateway Project, is now turning his attention to transit.

"I think there is a fair amount of interest and concern in the business community," said Mr. Wilds, managing director of the Greater Vancouver Gateway Project. "If we're going to be a gateway, we need a rational distribution of the money. And transit will be a benefit to everyone because it will reduce congestion."

But the people he works with are concerned about the mounting costs for road users.

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"We've got the highest fuel taxes in the country. And we're now implementing tolls on an ad hoc basis."

Along with the two business groups, transit advocate Gordon Price said that a new coalition called Get on Board was just launched Tuesday, bringing together residents, businesses and academics to lobby for better transit funding.

As Monday's TransLink announcement made clear, the agency is barely able to pay for the existing system and minimal improvements for the foreseeable future. Although Surrey and Vancouver both have ambitious rapid-transit plans – the Broadway line SkyTrain extension in Vancouver, and three light-rail lines in Surrey – there's not a clue at the moment about how TransLink might pay for them.

The agency has been brought to its financial knees in the past year as fuel-tax revenues plummeted, the province refused to allow new funding mechanisms, the mayors refused to raise property taxes and the transportation commissioner turned down an application for a fare increase above a certain cap.

None of the business groups claim to have found a solution yet, but they're working on it.

In August, Mr. Wilds organized the first of what he said will be a series of meetings for business people among his members to try to work out options for a better system.

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"It's a very complex issue. But there has to be a better way for road users to pay their fair share, for residents to pay their fair share."

The question is, will anyone in the provincial government be willing to listen?

The region's chambers of commerce and boards of trade lobbied the province hard two years ago to improve the transit-financing mechanism.

They did not get much of a response, say several of those involved, with various provincial representatives saying it is up to TransLink and mayors to solve the problem, not the province.

"We do get the response from them, 'It's a local body. There's no solution. There's no money,'" said Anita Huberman, CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade.

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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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