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British Columbia Trudeau announces $460-million in transit funding for B.C.

Justin Trudeau arrives Thursday in a SkyTrain with B.C. Premier Christy Clark, right, and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, left, to make a funding announcement at TransLink facility in Burnaby. Mayors are asking when the province will step up with transit money.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

British Columbia became the first province in Canada to sign an agreement with Ottawa for new federal transit money, but area mayors cautioned Thursday's upbeat announcement is just the beginning of a long negotiation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Premier Christy Clark and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson made the announcement of nearly a billion dollars in joint funding. But Lower Mainland mayors said during and after the announcement that the province still needs to come up with a new money source to guarantee both this Phase One deal and the much larger second phase.

Mr. Robertson called the federal government a "dedicated and willing partner" that has fairly contributed 50 per cent of the funding. But he said the province still has to make a long-term commitment.

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Community Minister Peter Fassbender remained adamant that, while he's certain a long-term deal will be worked out, the province will not provide the $50-million a year needed for the next 10 years from carbon-tax revenue, as mayors have asked.

That tension underlay what was otherwise an elaborate and celebratory announcement.

Mr. Trudeau, Ms. Clark and Mr. Robertson arrived at TransLink's SkyTrain operations centre in a new Mark III rail car and then stood in front of dozens of garage employees to give their prepared speeches.

Ms. Clark said the transit improvements contribute to one of the province's biggest priorities: fighting climate change.

Mr. Trudeau emphasized his government's bold support for transit spending "after too many years [where] the federal government was a less than active partner."

Mr. Trudeau said he hoped that his government's strong commitment to helping pay for urban transit would end some of the wrangling that has characterized negotiations over funding in B.C.

"That is what is entirely changing is the tone, the collaboration," the Prime Minister said, when asked about that problem.

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Thursday's announcement promised for Lower Mainland residents a small down payment on the much bigger $7.5-billion mayors' plan for transit improvements.

Mr. Trudeau announced a total of $460-million in transit funding for the province, with $370-million of it for the Lower Mainland.

Ms. Clark reiterated the commitment made three weeks ago to provide $246-million for the Lower Mainland.

And Mr. Robertson said TransLink will provide $125-million for the first phase, which will all come from land sales. TransLink estimated two years ago that it had properties, including the valuable former Oakridge bus barn at 41st and Oak, worth $200-million.

That $740-million altogether will allow TransLink to spend $345-million on 55 new rail cars, buy a third Seabus and run it, invest $94-million into new transit exchanges, and get the construction of Surrey's new light-rail lines and the Broadway extension in Vancouver started with $157-million for planning and pre-construction work.

But mayors say that for any of that to move from memorandum of understanding to final deal by September, the province needs to spell out what its contribution will be for the rest of the $7.5-billion plan.

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In the fall, the federal government will begin discussions about the second phase of transit funding, which will cover the next seven years of the region's 10-year plan. Phase 2 would include major construction costs on the two rapid-transit projects.

TransLink will not be ordering any new buses immediately because there is no clarity on where the operating money will come from. Buses are a big part of the mayors' plan and the service most used by many residents.

However, TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond said the agency will be able to improve bus service with the existing fleet, since money from the federal program going into maintenance and other projects will free up existing TransLink money for more bus routes.

Mayors have said they are willing to pay for 17 per cent of most of the capital costs in the $7.5-billion plan, as well as 100 per cent of the $3.9-billion in new operating costs required over the 10 years.

Most of that will come from a property-tax increase, a fare increase, and a new charge for development in the region.

But they say they can only do that if the province gives them a new source of revenue for about $50-million a year still missing.

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"We need some other mechanism to close the gap," said Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner.

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