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Metro Vancouver mayors begin new hunt for TransLink cash

Mayors council chair Richard Walton says a whole
Mayors council chair Richard Walton says a whole 'supermarket' of new funding options are under consideration for TransLink. It's unlikely, however, that any of them will be as palatable to residents as the baking chocolate Walton holds in this file photo.
— image credit: North Shore Outlook

A new search is underway for fresh pots of money to finance TransLink's vision to expand transit across Metro Vancouver.

And it will include a hard look at ways to collect more cash from motorists while simultaneously encouraging transit use and controlling congestion.

"People's gut reaction to some of these will be extremely negative and hostile," predicts North Vancouver District Mayor Richard Walton, who chairs the Mayors Council on Regional Transportation.

Road pricing, regional tolling or a yearly vehicle levy are among the potential options, he said, and each comes with multiple different variations.

A vehicle levy – which TransLink briefly proposed last fall but shelved – could charge more or less each year depending on engine size, carbon footprint or mileage driven.

Tolling schemes can apply to just specific lanes rather than the entire system, or tolls could vary depending on the time of day to encourage travel at off-peak hours.

"There's a whole supermarket of options you can look at," he said.

Walton hopes public attitudes soften as people realize they may be able to change how they travel and avoid paying tolls, or choose to pay and benefit from improved travel times.

"People need to see a connection between any proposed tax and a shifting of travel patterns and behaviour in a way that benefits everybody – that frees up road capacity and increases the number of options."

TransLink has named consultants IBI Group as well as professors from three Ontario universities – Andrew Bevan, Enid Slack and Harry Kitchen – to research options for the mayors.

"We're casting the net wide looking for best practices," Walton said, adding the aim is to gain approval on multiple new sources.

Mayors last December refused to pass an expansion plan tabled by TransLink's board that would have seen property taxes jacked significantly as an interim step while other sources are explored.

The mayors had been pressured by the province to okay the tax hike to start paying TransLink's promised share of the costs of the Evergreen Line, which is supposed to begin construction this year.

It's now back to the drawing board and Walton is canvassing new transportation minister Blair Lekstrom to gauge the Christy Clark government's willingness to approve new cash streams.

The mayors previously wanted TransLink to get a share of future increases in the carbon tax, an idea that remains on their agenda.

Also to be considered, Walton said, is whether the province's existing tolling policy should change.

B.C. currently allows tolls to be introduced only on new or significantly improved roads or bridges and only if there's a reasonable free alternative.

That blocks any kind of tolling or road pricing scheme that would charge consistently across the region.

Many South of Fraser residents and politicians say it's unfair that bridges into Surrey are so far the only ones tolled or expected to be tolled.

But Walton said the North Shore would be "outraged" if their only crossings were tolled without improvements and without any free alternative.

"So what is the principle you are going to use?" he asked. "If you did the North Shore, why would you not also do the new bridge across the Pitt River, the Burrard Street Bridge, the Granville Bridge, the Cambie Bridge, Knight and the bridges to the airport?

"This is the challenge most of us have with arbitrary tolling of bridges. There needs to be an underlying principle."

To fairly deliver road pricing, he added, transponder detection points would be needed not just on bridges, but likely also at various points along major highways to more accurately track and charge for use.

Walton hopes to begin regional meetings with local politicians on some of the options by late April.

TransLink has told the consultants the short-term aim is to find a revenue stream that can start generating $50 to $100 million a year almost immediately, and identify other cash streams that will take longer to implement.

Consultants are to consider "equity, influence on travel demand, economic impacts and revenue generation" in assessing the options.

Without more revenue, TransLink can't cover its $400-million share of the Evergreen Line costs, let alone build new rapid transit lines in Surrey or along Vancouver's Broadway corridor. Its expansion wish list also includes running three SeaBuses and adding more buses, SkyTrain and West Coast Express cars.

It's the second time in just over two years that TransLink has begun a wide-ranging search for new long-term funding.

A cellphone levy and a tax on containers moving through the port were two contentious options on a list of 28 tabled for discussion in late 2008.

Both ideas were later discarded.

The vehicle levy proposed last year – called a Transportation Improvement Fee – would have raised $150 million a year by charging an average of $122 per vehicle.

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