Under the mayors' council plan B-Line express bus service would come to a dozen new routes across the region.

Mayors to unveil referendum question for $285 million in new taxes

Transit referendum expected to come with audit assurance to voters, Walton says

Metro Vancouver mayors are to finalize and vote on their intended referendum question for new transit taxes at a meeting Thursday.

They haven’t yet revealed which of three new sources they intend to propose – a Metro-only increase in either the provincial sales tax or carbon tax or else an annual fee on every registered vehicle.

But Mayors Council chair Richard Walton says they’re also considering “taxpayer protection measures” – some type of audit function – to assure voters any money from higher taxes goes where it’s promised.

“If they’re going to pay additional amounts into transit people want to see that there’s a high level of assurance those funds will be spent exactly as committed on the referendum ballot,” Walton said.

Another question mark is whether there will be enough money to fund the mayors’ full $7.5-billion 10-year package of upgrades – including a Broadway subway, light rail in Surrey and new B-Line express buses.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone last week reiterated his position that neither the province nor Ottawa will provide as much in capital contributions as the Metro mayors assume over 10 years.

The mayors’ proposed tax hikes would total $285 million per year in additional revenue.

Stone said that request is also too much and the province would only consent to a smaller, more affordable amount going to referendum.

The gap between what mayors want and the province will approve raises the possibility mayors will be pressured to chop projects out of the package – risking their unity – or abandon the referendum altogether.

But Walton downplayed that prospect, saying he has spoken to Stone and remains “very optimistic” the referendum can proceed as planned, with approval of both the mayors’ council and provincial cabinet.

The most costly rapid transit lines would be built in the second half of the plan, he said, leaving plenty of time for mayors to iron out senior government contributions.

“I think there’s always going to be that level of tension between the governments,” Walton said. “Obviously we’d like more and the provincial government’s perspective is they have a lot of different areas to fund and would like to spread it further.”

A third of Metro’s 21 municipalities have new mayors who were elected last month and they were briefed at an in-camera mayors’ council meeting last Friday.

The provincial government said in 2013 any new taxes for TransLink will have to pass a referendum.

Mayors could still raise TransLink property taxes – which are an existing source – without a referendum, but insist they don’t intend to do that.

The referendum is expected to take place in the spring by mail-in ballot overseen by Elections BC.

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