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'No point' in setting transit priorities without revenue clarity

Left: North Vancouver District Mayor Richard Walton, chair of the regional mayors
Left: North Vancouver District Mayor Richard Walton, chair of the regional mayors' council. Right: Transportation Minister Todd Stone.
— image credit: File

Metro Vancouver mayors will have plenty of questions about the province's revised plan for a delayed referendum on new TransLink taxes when they meet Transportation Minister Todd Stone Friday.

Stone last week pledged governance changes to give the mayors' council more power over TransLink planning and priorities and said the promised referendum can be delayed until mid-2015 as long as mayors agree by June 30 on the details of a vision for regional transit expansion.

Mayors' council chair Richard Walton said Tuesday it's too early to say if mayors can commit to meet Stone's deadline to draw up a detailed, fully costed expansion plan with specific priorities and project phasing.

Doing so is difficult, he said, until mayors know how much money is available, and that hinges on what new funding sources the province would approve, subject to the successful referendum.

"There's a lot of unanswered questions," said Walton, who was to meet Stone Wednesday in Victoria ahead of the Friday session.

Stone's Feb. 6 letter to the mayors included a major carrot – an offer of one-third provincial funding restricted to "major new rapid transit" projects and replacement of the Pattullo Bridge.

Walton rejected suggestions mayors are unable to agree on expansion priorities, adding no such debate has taken place at mayors' council because it's preliminary until funding options are clarified.

"If you don't have a commitment, there's no point in worrying about whether Surrey or Vancouver go first," Walton said of proposed new rapid transit lines.

"When I hear those comments I respond quite viscerally because it's a misinterpretation. Whether it's intentional or unintentional, it's not true."

Mayors have repeatedly proposed various new sources – a regional share of carbon tax, a 0.5 per cent regional sales tax, a vehicle levy and, eventually, road pricing.

Although Stone has assured Walton everything is on the table, previous ministers have said the same thing only to see the premier reject new funding sources on various occasions.

Blame for a vehicle levy or sales tax might stick to the province – which would prefer to see the mayors raise TransLink property taxes instead – but mayors have ruled out   more property tax for transit as it would leave less room for other civic and regional priorities.

Stone's letter appeared to rule out new tolls or fees on provincial bridges and highways – which would be part of a road pricing system – even though he has also agreed more tolls on Fraser River crossings would be unfair and has ordered a review of the provincial tolling policy.

If the only tool the province will accept is a small vehicle levy, Walton said it won't generate enough for the major transit expansion required and would best be plowed instead into more buses.

Surrey and New Westminster mayors also want to know whether a rebuilt Pattullo Bridge would be tolled or not, given the province's pledge of one-third funding.

It's unclear, Walton said, if a 0.5 per cent sales tax for Metro Vancouver would have to be collected province-wide, rather than just locally, with shares allocated to other regions.

Mayors also want to know if Surrey's push for ground-level light rail lines, rather than elevated SkyTrain, would count as a project eligible for provincial money under the wording of Stone's letter.

Both the TransLink board and the mayors are unclear, Walton added, on how the new lines of authority and accountability would work.

There's little time to get the required answers, he said.

So far, Walton said, the province's focus on first setting the referendum date without hammering out the other details is "like saying there's a final exam in four months but we don't know what the course is yet or how you can register for it."

If there's no deal by June, the next possible referendum date would be the subsequent municipal elections, in the fall of 2017, or possibly 2018 if civic terms extend to four years.

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