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Vancouver mayors eyeing all options for transit revenues

The Vancoiuver region’s 22 mayors are seeking solutions for both a short-term fix to TransLink funding, starting next year, and a much more ambitious permanent restructuring of funding for the billion-dollar-a-year agency.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Metro Vancouver mayors say they want to come up with a completely new way of paying for transit and roads over the long term – and that may include getting rid of some existing revenue sources, like the gas tax.

"The holy grail we're working towards is long-term sustainable funding. That may not even use some of the sources we have today," said Richard Walton, chair of the mayors' council for the transportation agency that manages roads, bridges and transit for the Lower Mainland.

He spoke at the conclusion of an exhaustive, three-hour meeting Wednesday where the region's 22 mayors grappled to find solutions for both a short-term fix to TransLink funding, starting next year, and a much more ambitious permanent restructuring of funding for the billion-dollar-a-year agency.

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"There will have to be a fairly lengthy discussion that has to involve the public about [that permanent restructuring]" he said.

"It may be that certain taxes fall off."

Mr. Walton, the mayor of the District of North Vancouver, said it's clear the gas tax is not a stable funding source because the revenue TransLink gets from gas taxes goes down when gas prices go up, as people leave their cars at home and start taking transit. But the cost of transit rises when gas prices go up because the agency gets hit with both higher fuel costs and the need to provide more service.

Mr. Walton said any long-term plan would have to include a mix of sources, with at least some of them based on "demand management" – a transit-bureaucrat phrase that means charging drivers through tolls, vehicle levies, mileage pricing or other mechanisms that require them to pay more if they drive a lot, during rush hours, drive a heavy vehicle or in certain congested parts of the region.

All of those and more were identified in a recent staff technical report that outlined all the possible sources of transit financing used around the world. That sent some people into a tizzy, thinking it meant that TransLink was about to put tolls on roads all over the region – something Mr. Walton said is a non-starter.

But the conversation about a long-term plan will only be able to start once the mayors solve a shorter-term problem: how to come up with $30-million a year starting next year, so they don't have to raise property taxes.

Council vice-chair Peter Fassbender, the mayor of Langley City, said the mayors identified a new source at the Wednesday meeting that they think is the best option for short-term revenue.

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They're not going to say what it is for now, while they have more discussions with the province – which will have to pass new legislation to allow it – and while they wait for a report assessing TransLink's finances from the provincial transportation commissioner.

But Mr. Fassbender and Mr. Walton said the new solution has to be sent to Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom by April 10 if the province is going to pass legislation and put it into effect by next year.

"We want to present it to the public the right way," Mr. Fassbender said.

While $30-million sounds like a lot, it works out to little more than $30 per household for the 950,000 households in the Vancouver metropolitan region or $37.50 per vehicle for the 800,000 licensed vehicles in Greater Vancouver.

However, politicians at all levels are extremely nervous these days about introducing new taxes, even modest ones, because of strong public backlash in recent years.

Several times in TransLink's 12-year life, the province has backed away from suggested new taxes, such as a vehicle levy or parking-stall tax.

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Asked if he thought the province would be hesitant to bring in a new levy with an election just over a year away, Mr. Walton said mayors are remaining "optimistic."

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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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