Tuesday’s federal budget brings good and bad news for Metro Vancouver mayors who hoped big new grants from Ottawa might quickly accelerate their transit-expansion plans.
There is no major chunk on offer yet from the federal government for the planned Surrey light rail project or the Broadway SkyTrain extension, both $2-billion-plus projects. What is coming soon – over the next three years – is $460 million in public transit funding for B.C., $370 million of that for Metro Vancouver.
Metro mayors expect that to help fund new buses, SkyTrain cars and station upgrades for TransLink – effectively helping kickstart the other planks of the region’s transit expansion strategy that’s been in limbo since the referendum defeat last summer of a new regional sales tax.
Metro board chair Greg Moore noted the regional vision called for a 25 per cent bus service lift and 11 new B-Line express routes, adding some of that could be implemented soon.
The initial phase of money is also expected to help fund continued design and engineering of the Vancouver and Surrey rapid-transit expansions.
Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said she is not disappointed by the Liberals’ approach to phasing transit grants.
“They are on track to do what they said they would do,” Hepner said, noting it will take years to build the new lines and not all the money is needed right away.
“This moves us along towards construction. We may start in the ground in 2018 but we may not finish going all the way out to Langley until 2022 or 2024.”
Other news, if widely telegraphed in advance by federal ministers, is a commitment to sweeten the traditional funding formula of one-third from each senior government for major new infrastructure.
The budget commits Ottawa to provide up to 50 per cent of the costs of public transit projects.
With regional taxpayers now needing to shoulder only one-sixth instead of the usual one-third of the costs, it means a new tax for transit won’t be as onerous as the one that went to referendum last year.
“The whole landscape has changed since the referendum,” Hepner said, predicting intense closed-door talks with provincial ministers to solve the TransLink financing impasse. “It would be irresponsible of us not to be ready for that funding. No one is going to want to miss this opportunity.”
B.C.’s minister responsible for TransLink Peter Fassbender wouldn’t speculate on what might be the likeliest new tax to fund TransLink, but said he would work with Metro mayors.
The province’s number one priority for infrastructure grants – the $3.5-billion Massey Tunnel replacement with a new bridge and Highway 99 upgrade – got no mention in the federal budget.
“We’re going to continue to press for (a federal contribution),” Fassbender said, noting he welcomed federal contributions to affordable housing and to a study on the impact of foreign investment on real estate prices.
The federal government is also pledging $60 million over five years to establish a new RCMP forensics lab at the E Division headquarters in Surrey, as well as a new veterans-affairs office in Surrey.
The budget delivers $5.6 billion for programs and services for critically injured veterans, but spreads it out over decades.
Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s budget includes a deficit of $29.4 billion – three times what had been promised during the election campaign, and forecasts more than $100 billion in deficits for the next five years, contrary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election promise to balance the budget in four.
Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose said the Liberals inherited a $4 billion surplus, but “what we’re seeing now is reckless spending without a job creation plan, and no actual plan in the budget to return to a balance.”
South Surrey-White Rock MP Dianne Watts, the Conservative infrastructure and communities critic, issued a news release Wednesday saying she is “disappointed by the lack of an in-depth plan for communities.”
She criticized transit-funding delays, elimination of income-splitting, phasing out of tax credits, “clawed back” tax-free saving accounts, and retaining a small-business tax rate of 10.5 per cent.
“The budget also broke a significant promise to our veterans: it made no mention of the pension that was promised to veterans during the election,” Watts said, noting cuts in defence spending and deferral of “$3.7 billion worth of much-needed new equipment for our military… until after the next federal election.”
– with files from Tom Fletcher