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Local mayors clash with BC Liberals over transit funding

A TransLink bus travels on West Broadway in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday March 22, 2017.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Local mayors will have to hold another referendum to come up with the money for their part of the Broadway subway and Surrey LRT, according to a statement from the BC Liberals to the TransLink mayors' council.

As well, the party is also saying for the first time that it will only pay for a third of the Pattullo Bridge replacement between Surrey and New Westminster if TransLink comes up with a "strong business case."

That new position comes in the wake of the Liberal party's recent election-campaign promise to cap tolls in the region at $500 a year. TransLink had been counting on tolls to help pay for the bridge.

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Those two positions – articulated in response to a questionnaire put to all parties from the mayors' council – have come as an unwelcome surprise to local mayors.

New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Coté, chairman of a committee looking at a new road-pricing system for the region, said residents need to be aware of the Liberals' stance on the matter during the current election campaign.

"Voters need to recognize this could put in jeopardy light rail south of the Fraser and other projects," Mr. Coté said.

He said federal funding could disappear in the time it would take to come up with a public-transit pricing plan and hold a referendum.

The issue of where the money will come from for the regional share of a 10-year, $7.5-billion plan for transit improvements remains a crucial point in negotiations.

Although the province and the federal government have now committed almost $5-billion combined, the region has still not figured out how to pay for the remainder.

As well, he said, if the province under a Liberal government stalls or hesitates on coming up with its share of money for the Pattullo Bridge, that could mean having to shut down the bridge completely at some point before a new one is built.

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"If important decisions aren't made soon, there's a potential for decommissioning the bridge."

The Liberals said in an e-mailed statement that their share of the Patullo Bridge replacement project remains on the table. "We've been consistent that any new funding sources would require voter approval," the statement said.

The NDP's response to the mayors' council question was that it would support the mayors' work in coming up with a new funding mechanism.

The Green Party said it would work with mayors on a rational tolling system and on a way to finance the regional share of transportation improvements.

In the survey, the Liberals provided this response to a question about how to come up with an equitable way of paying for transit expansions in the region:

"Our government has consistently said to the mayors' council that they need to ensure that the public fully understands both the plan and the funding mechanism. We believe that it is critical that this process includes public engagement. Today's BC Liberals respect the outcome of the 2015 transit referendum.

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"The legislative requirement is that any new revenue source must receive a mandate from those who would pay for it. We remain committed to working with mayors and will hold a second referendum at their request.

As the mayors themselves have pointed out, subsequent referendums on transit matters often find more success."

The public voted 2-to-1 against a proposal from the mayors two years ago to fund the regional share of the transit network through an additional 0.5-per-cent sales tax.

The only way TransLink could avoid the referendum that the Liberal party has said would be a legal requirement is by increasing revenues from the existing sources of money it has: property taxes and fares.

Jordan Bateman, the departing local representative of the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation, welcomed the clarification from the party about the continuing requirement for a referendum.

"When you're bringing a brand-new form of taxation, it should go to the public. The public should have the right to have their say."

Transit advocate Gordon Price, a fellow with the SFU Centre for Dialogue, said the Liberal party's stance is not just dismaying, but puzzling.

Mr. Price pointed out that the Lower Mainland has half the population, provides more than half the tax revenue for the province and is the seat of a thriving economy.

Mr. Price said that, while the Liberals are the worst on transit policy, with their begrudging and anti-urban elite attitude, the others parties are little better.

"There's an absence of the connection of transit to any kind of urban vision."

Video: Trudeau announces GO Transit investment for a ‘faster commute’ (The Canadian Press)
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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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