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Many unknowns cloud path to transit referendum

Instead of a growing and haphazard set of bridge tolls, it
Instead of a growing and haphazard set of bridge tolls, it's suggested Metro Vancouver drivers instead pay road user fees that might be around two cents per kilometre.
— image credit: TransLink

Large questions remain unanswered on what happens next with Metro Vancouver mayors' request for more transit funding.

The referendum question itself hasn't been settled, nor has the timing – and that assumes the province agrees to the overall concept and new funding sources.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone said the province needs more time to consider the mayors' proposals.

While road pricing is proposed, it would be several years away and is undefined – officials say there are many possible permutations and it could include everything from tolling all bridges and roads at small rates to a charge on motorists' annual insurance based on how far they drive.

How much drivers might pay is unclear.

An appendix to the plan gives a preliminary estimate of "a mobility pricing rate of approximately two cents per kilometre applied to all vehicular traffic in the region" to generate $250 million a year by the end of the 10-year horizon, providing about half the new money needed. The rest would come from either a new regional carbon tax or reallocation of existing carbon tax revenue.

Two cents per kilometre would add up to a $1.40 round trip charge to drive 35 kilometres each way from South Surrey to Coquitlam.

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The idea also assumes the province will agree to reform its tolling policy, which has so far led to tolling of only some bridges, inefficiently distorting traffic patterns.

The mayors' letter to Stone says the new scheme should ensure "a seamless, balanced and fair system throughout Metro Vancouver."

Existing bridge tolls might be replaced by the new system of paying to travel anywhere, regardless of whether a body of water is crossed.

And TransLink's gas tax would also be reduced from 17 cents to 11 cents per litre, the plan suggests.

Road pricing rates could also vary by time of day, to encourage more drivers to shift trips to off-peak times, putting less pressure on major routes at rush hour and improving overall system efficiency. (TransLink calls it "mobility pricing" because it intends to extend similar time-of-day pricing principles to transit fares as well.)

Stone had no answer Thursday on whether the referendum – if approved by voters – will give mayors approval to implement road pricing when it's finally fleshed out, or if residents would get another vote years later on the details.

The biggest question mark is what Premier Christy Clark will say about the entire proposal – she caught the mayors and various transportation ministers off guard in the past by suddenly blocking earlier proposals to refinance TransLink.

Twice Clark made the mayors and TransLink wait for audits to ensure the transportation authority was as efficient as possible before new funding tools might be contemplated.

"I've been disappointed the last few times," said Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart, but added he's hopeful now.

Most mayors never wanted a referendum in the first place.

That, too, was imposed by Clark, as a surprise election platform plank for the B.C. Liberals in 2013 that appeared to evolve on the fly.

In the midst of the campaign, former transportation minister Mary Polak was pledging there would be no "none of the above" options in a referendum – voters would have to choose some mechanism to refinance TransLink – only to be overruled by the premier the next day.

Some mayors say they still won't participate in the referendum no matter what happens.

"I have no intention of supporting the referendum – I think it's a bad way to make public policy," Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said, but added he will work with the majority of mayors to try to deliver their approved vision.

George Heyman, the NDP's critic for TransLink, also opposes the concept of a referendum but said "it's now time for Todd Stone to find something he can say yes to."

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