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It’s time for ‘anxious and willing’ B.C. government to put up the transit cash

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One – 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver

I would like to take B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong at his word when he said Wednesday that the province is "anxious and willing" to work with local governments to settle on a final approach to transit funding.

Mr. de Jong made the comments following the release of the federal budget, and word that Ottawa was ready to contribute $2.2-billion toward major transit projects in the region – namely the Broadway-UBC subway line and the LRT line proposed for Surrey. The federal money would cover roughly 40 per cent of the cost. Mr. de Jong was quick to say that while the province's commitment to fund 33 per cent remains in place, he has no intention of matching the federal contribution. That means the remaining 27 per cent is tossed to municipalities and TransLink, which Mr. de Jong says should be able to find a way to come up with the cash.

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And so, here we go again.

Call it intractable, call it a quagmire, or call it an excruciating exercise in blame-laying, finger-pointing, accusations and denials, agendas and spin – funding transit in this region is all of the above.

Whether it was the battle over funding the Canada Line, the haggling and delays that preceded construction of the Evergreen Line, the refusal to financially support the region's 10-year transportation plan or the insistence that a small sales tax increase to fund transit be put to a referendum – the province has appeared less than "anxious and willing."

The case for both major transit projects has been made. Yes, there are still questions about whether light rail is the best option for Surrey, but the need for better transit is obvious. According to the City of Surrey, it is home to 20 per cent of the region's population but only accounts for 7.5 per cent of the existing rapid-transit network. It's estimated that Surrey will grow by another 300,000 people over the next 25 years, making it the most populous Lower Mainland municipality.

The case for the Broadway Corridor line has been made many times, by the City of Vancouver, by TransLink, by UBC and others. The debate about how far west the line should go lives on, with former B.C. premier and Vancouver mayor Mike Harcourt arguing the line needs to go beyond Arbutus Street all the way to UBC to accommodate growth at the university and the eventual development of the Jericho lands. But beyond development and the fact that the corridor is a major employment hub, the need for rapid transit is clear to any of the 2,000 people passed up by a full 99 B-Line bus every morning.

Surely the province sees the benefit of both transit projects and sees the need to fund them so they actually get built. Or does it?

Over the past couple of months – as pre-election funding announcements have overloaded in-boxes throughout the land – any mention of transportation has been limited to highway improvements and upgrades: $247-million for Highway 1 in the Columbia-Revelstoke region, $80-million to upgrade Highways 17 and 91 in North Delta, and $13.5-million for upgrades to Highway 4 on Vancouver Island, just to name a few. To be fair, the East Kootenay Regional District will get a million dollars for a bike trail but, beyond that, it's blacktop as far as the eye can see.

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Could it be that stepping up to bring major transit projects to fruition in Metro Vancouver isn't good pre-election politics? I don't know.

What I do know is that federal money is on the table – the projects most needed have had much of the preliminary work done, and the need for them has been clearly identified. Moving people by fast, efficient and environmentally friendly transit is preferable to having thousands of SUVs, many of them carrying a single occupant lining up to get over the toll-free bridges.

Imagine what could happen if the province and TransLink legitimately and sincerely, came together to do the right thing. That they put aside the politics, blame-laying and the finger-pointing and saw this as the opportunity that it is. That they were creative and forward-thinking and recognized the benefits that could flow to the region by building a transit system that rivals the best in the world.

Imagine that "anxious and willing" meant "let's get this done."

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