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Mayors fear TransLink plans will be downsized

Cities accuse province of betraying its promise to try to deliver new funds for transit
Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan (left); Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender (right).

Metro Vancouver mayors say they're frustrated by Victoria's refusal to allow new funding sources for TransLink, boxing it into raising property taxes to fund transit expansion over the short term unless huge savings are found internally.

"There was a promise by the minister that everything would be on the table," said North Vancouver City Coun. Craig Keating, referring to options like a vehicle levy or road pricing that many mayors view as preferable to taxing homes.

"Premier Clark's been busy crossing things off the list. That promise has just been betrayed."

The mayors passed a series of resolutions Thursday, including one that reconfirms their opposition to any new use of property tax for TransLink.

But there's growing concern among suburban mayors that their cities will lose out on long-promised transit service upgrades if TransLink ends up downsizing its expansion plans.

A majority of mayors voted Thursday to try to cancel $30 million in extra property tax to be raised through a $23 per average home levy in 2013 and 2014.

The money was the backup – if a new source wasn't negotiated with the province – to fund major bus service improvements, including bus rapid transit over the new Port Mann Bridge, express buses on King George Boulevard in Surrey and a new White Rock-Langley route.

But mayors from Langley City, Langley Township and White Rock voted against the resolution to remove the backup property tax, saying they can't risk seeing those projects shelved.

"It's not an option as far as South of the Fraser is concerned," said Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender, the vice-chair of the regional mayors' council.

He suspects TransLink will look at eliminating or delaying some of the promises in the Moving Forward plan approved last year, adding Langley and Surrey will "go to the wall" to keep that from happening.

"We worked too hard to get to the point where there was a recognition of the need for more services South of the Fraser."

The concern is that TransLink management, now under pressure to find about $20 million a year in savings after a proposed fare increase was rejected, will be unable to also carve out a further $30 million a year to cover the expansion costs if the property tax backup is removed.

"If they can meet those needs through other efficiencies, then great," Fassbender said. "But if they can't and some projects have to be taken off the table, I would like to know which ones those are."

The provincial government is sending in auditors from the finance ministry to help search for savings at TransLink.

The mayors said Thursday they don't feel another audit is needed – in light of a just-complete efficiency review by the TransLink Commissioner – but that if one is done it should be performed independently by B.C.'s Auditor General.

Keating said that's essential, because Finance Minister Kevin Falcon, in his former role as transportation minister, restructured TransLink five years ago and those changes were cited by the commissioner as one reason TransLink administration costs have ballooned in the intervening years.

"Since the professional board was created by Kevin Falcon to oversee TransLink, it has become mammothly inefficient," said Keating, who represents North Vancouver City on the mayors council. "This was what was supposed to make a dysfunctional thing function."

The mayors council also said a proposed governance reform offered by the province – to add the mayors' chair and vice-chair to the appointed TransLink board – does not go far enough.

They also want the provincial Auditor General to conduct an in-depth review of TransLink's governance model.

The mayors argue property taxpayers cannot shoulder more tax for TransLink, particularly when they also face sharply rising tax bills for other regional services in the coming years.

The province has said TransLink can explore the potential for road pricing over the long term, but has ruled out granting any new short term source until an audit of the transportation authority is finished.

It all smacks of I-told-you-so for Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan, who repeatedly warned the other mayors last year that the province would never grant controversial new funding sources with a provincial election looming.

"I predicted it all the way down the line," he said. "They had faith that this provincial government would honestly work toward solutions. They've been fooled."

Corrigan had argued the mayors should have refused last year to approve higher taxes to fund the expansion plan, which would have blocked the two cent a litre gas tax hike dedicated to covering TransLink's share of the Evergreen Line.

He says Victoria, desperate to get the SkyTrain extension to Coquitlam built, would have come back to the table and agreed to a new funding source that cities are now being denied, because they have no bargaining chips left.

Corrigan said TransLink's management and board geared the expansion plan to appeal to Langley and Surrey to secure the needed votes to get it passed.

"They manipulated the mayors into a position where the provincial government got what it wanted."

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