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Road pricing could be the next step to fund transit in B.C.

TransLink needs an extra stream of funds to pay for expansions. Existing funds only provide enough coverage for operations of the current system.

Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

The B.C. government is willing to consider charging drivers for when and how far they travel to raise money for public transit, Communities Minister Peter Fassbender said Thursday, though he cautioned such a system would be too complex to put in place before an expected round of federal infrastructure spending.

The priority now is getting a share of the $20-billion in new money that the federal Liberals promised during the recent election campaign, Mr. Fassbender said following a speech to the region's development industry.

"We have to make sure we are ready to take advantage of the opportunity right now," he said after an address that emphasized the need for an integrated, sustainable transit system in the region.

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"I believe the mayors clearly know this is a timely opportunity."

The TransLink mayors' council brought up the prospect of mobility pricing following a plebiscite earlier this year in which voters in the Vancouver region rejected a transit sales tax. The tax had been proposed as a way to raise the money needed for $7.5-billion in transit improvements throughout the region, outlined in a comprehensive mayors' plan.

The plan counted on getting $2-billion apiece from the federal and provincial governments.

Mr. Fassbender didn't suggest mobility pricing would have to be approved through a referendum, as Premier Christy Clark did last month.

His speech was an indication of the next chapter about to begin in the TransLink saga: what B.C. and regional mayors will do to resolve a 15-year-old funding problem for the transit agency to take advantage of new money for subways and light rail that the federal Liberals pledged.

Ever since TransLink was created in 2000, the province and regional mayors have been deadlocked over an additional source of money for the agency besides property taxes, gas taxes and fares. Mayors and TransLink leaders have said the agency needs an extra stream of funds to pay for big expansions, because the current revenue streams only provide enough to cover the operations of the existing system.

The province has pushed back at any effort to add a vehicle tax, sales tax, carbon tax or other mechanism, saying mayors should raise property taxes to come up with the one-third of the money usually required from local governments to pay for big transit projects. Mayors have refused to do that the last five years.

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If British Columbia can't resolve the issue, federal money will go first to such cities as Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa that aren't wrestling with the same problem.

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, the mayors' council vice-chair, said there is no way that mayors will agree to raising property taxes to come up with the local share of Surrey's $2-billion light-rail project or Vancouver's $2-billion Broadway-line project.

Ms. Hepner said she is still counting on other solutions. One possibility, she said, is that the federal government will provide more than the standard one-third for transit projects. She also suggested that there are regional funds that could be used for interest payments on transit loans while the province and mayors work out a mobility-pricing plan.

One change Mr. Fassbender said he's not going to consider at all is another reorganization of how TransLink is governed. When the agency was first created, 12 mayors sat on a board that directed TransLink. The province changed that in 2007 to have the board composed of non-political appointees.

Mr. Fassbender emphasized that everyone needs to stay focused on what's really important, not squabbles over how much TransLink's CEO is paid or what the governance of TransLink looks like. "It's important that we keep our eye on the goal – an integrated, working transportation system."

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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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