You might think Transportation Minister Todd Stone would be due a hero's welcome when he sits down with Metro Vancouver mayors Friday. After all, he recently gave them what they wanted – full control over transit decisions in the region.
Yet it's unlikely many mayors will be smiling after Mr. Stone explains some of the hard truths about the proposed transit referendum. In fact, there's a very good chance that after the meeting is over many mayors will suggest there is little point in holding the referendum at all – which would suit the provincial government just fine.
Oh, and by the way, some breaking news: If the referendum isn't held this fall in conjunction with the municipal elections – something that is now all but a certainty – then the plebiscite will likely be conducted via a mail-in ballot, the Minister told me in an interview this week.
But the big news surrounds the financial instruments available to the mayors to raise the money necessary for their transportation dreams. The Metro Vancouver Mayors' Council has mostly talked about tolls and road pricing as the levers they prefer to use to raise the potentially billions necessary to build new subway lines in Vancouver and light rail systems in Surrey, not to mention expanding bus service everywhere else.
Absent those options, the mayors are looking at fare hikes, a vehicle levy or a property-tax increase as a means of generating the cash necessary to realize their vision. They have steadfastly ruled out a property-tax rise because they believe rates are high enough already and it penalizes people whose home value is disproportionate to their take-home pay.
The mayors seemed confident about including road pricing and tolls on a referendum question until, that is, mayors' council chair, Richard Walton, received a letter from the Transportation Minister last week outlining changes in the governance structure to TransLink and other matters related to the referendum. On TransLink, the government announced it is effectively handing full control of transit matters over to the mayors' council – something for which they have been agitating ever since that authority was taken away from them six years ago.
As it pertained to the referendum, one line in Mr. Stone's letter caught the mayor's attention. It related to the mayors not being able to take advantage of provincial transportation infrastructure to raise the money to fund their utopian transit dreams. That sounded like it meant the mayors would not be able to institute tolls or road pricing on provincial highways and bridges in the region – but they weren't sure. They hoped to get clarification in Friday's noon-hour meeting.
So is that what Mr. Stone meant?
"That's exactly what we're saying at this point," the Minister said in an interview in his office here.
Mr. Stone doesn't believe there is one silver bullet to address transit's funding dilemma. And the available options are well known: a vehicle levy, property tax, gas tax hike, fare box increases, road pricing. It's the view of the mayors' council that only levers such as tolls and road pricing will be able to generate the big bucks necessary to finance ambitious infrastructure projects such as subways and light rail transit lines.
Mr. Walton recently told me that without funding sources such as tolls and road pricing, the mayors' council might as well forget about the big plans it has and invest in buses instead. A regional sales tax increase is another option that has been mentioned by the mayors, but Mr. Stone told me that would likely be frowned upon by his government.
Which sounds like the provincial government is pressuring the mayors to hike property taxes to pay for transit expansion. It's known the government believes there is a case to be made that those taxes are low compared to other jurisdictions in the country, and that not enough of the property taxes collected is going to fund transit. And if that is what the province is effectively leaving the mayors with as a useful funding option, then a referendum would not be needed.
Mr. Stone told me that TransLink is just weeks away from producing a report that outlines five regional transit options for the mayors: do nothing; maintain the existing system with annual upgrades as necessary, or go ahead with one of three expansion scenarios that could be classified as small, medium and large in terms of scope and cost.
Given the news that the Transportation Minister is preparing to deliver to the mayors, it's likely that they may have to scale back their hopes and start envisioning a much more modest transit future.
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