Road and bridge tolls are back on the table for municipalities trying to figure out a way to raise money for new transit infrastructure, despite Transportation Minister Todd Stone's insistence this month that they were off limits.
It's the latest reversal from the B.C. Liberals, who have been variously tough and conciliatory with Metro Vancouver mayors over a promised transit referendum that will offer voters a say in how future transit projects will be funded.
Mr. Stone said Tuesday he was "very pleased" with the progress among mayors working to clarify a united vision of transit in the region.
"I certainly have an open mind and so does government," Mr. Stone said. "We have said, 'Put your plan together and concurrent with that we'll talk about funding in terms of carbon tax, regional sales tax, regional road pricing – bring forward a plan that includes a means of paying for it.'"
When pressed on whether that could include road tolls and other forms of road pricing, he responded: "At this point I'm not ruling anything out … there are no pre-conditions."
This year, the government told mayors the transit referendum would be held at the same time as the municipal elections scheduled for November.
That prompted an outcry from the mayors, who said local elections could get hijacked by the referendum. The province refused initially to back down.
However, Mr. Stone softened his stance this month in a letter to the mayors' council, saying the government would postpone the referendum until next year, but only if mayors came up with a question and a fully costed transit plan on their own. The letter said any new funding sources must be generated in the region and not fall on taxpayers in the rest of the province, and new money could not be collected from the existing provincial transportation system.
The letter specified that the province wouldn't agree to any referendum that included regional tolls and road pricing.
On Monday, Metro Vancouver mayors said they'd been willing to work on a plan for a transit-financing referendum – as long as the province is willing to allow them to put all financing options on the table, including road and bridge tolls.
The mayors said in their letter they had the "expectation" that all funding sources would be eligible for consideration "including fuel tax, vehicle levy, regional sales tax, carbon tax, road pricing and related bridge tolling (except on provincial bridges already tolled) and no further property tax increases in excess of the annual revenue increases currently permitted to TransLink."
Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said Tuesday the mayors have never thought the referendum was a good idea and they still don't.
But they agreed to work together on a vision to be presented to the public by June 30 because they believe the Transportation Minister is genuinely working toward giving them more control over TransLink, the regional transportation authority.
They insisted on being able to include road pricing because "we have long said that road pricing is the long-term solution."
"If we're working towards a vision and if, at the end of that road, we don't have the appropriate sources of funding, we're wasting our time."