COLUMN: Last straw for many drivers

Two-cent levy actually reduces TransLink coffer for rapid transit on new Port Mann bridge.

The provincial government and TransLink are scrambling to avoid one of the biggest embarrassments imaginable.

The province is in the midst of building a major bridge and freeway project, with lanes specifically designed for transit.

Yet the project could open without any transit service at all.

The Port Mann bridge replacement will have lanes dedicated to transit, as will the new highway. Plans call for express buses to use the lanes and get people from Surrey and Langley to the Lougheed SkyTrain station in less than 30 minutes, no matter how congested the bridge is. A huge park-and-ride lot is being built in Langley to accommodate people who might otherwise drive.

The transit service, if it comes about, would also give some drivers a viable alternative to paying tolls. All in all, it is a service well worth using.

Yet TransLink hasn’t got the money to start the new bus service.

In a classic case of overreach, it boosted the gas tax by two cents earlier this year – only to find the move helped take gas tax revenue down.

For some, it was the straw that broker the camel’s back. The tax boost came at a time of high gas prices, and gave people one more good reason not to buy gas within Metro Vancouver.

It’s a tax revolt, Canadian-style. There are no signs and no rallying point.

People just go where they know they can save money.

When coupled with more generous cross-border shopping exemptions from the federal government – and a high Canadian dollar – TransLink’s tax boost has driven many people to the U.S. for gas and a whole lot more. Cross-border trips in June were at levels that haven’t been seen since 1972. Anyone who goes near a border crossing, particularly on weekends, knows what the lineups are like.

This TransLink move ended up punishing local businesses, by taking away some of their customers. Undoubtedly, some employees at small businesses have lost their jobs as a result of lessened activity.

People looking for a better deal on gas don’t just go south. Many go east – because in Abbotsford, Mission and other areas of the Fraser Valley, gas is often 12 cents per litre cheaper. If they don’t make that trip regularly, they certainly are sure to fill up when heading back home after a trip outside the Lower Mainland.

TransLink says it is waiting for an audit to be complete before making its next move, but it seems it will be very difficult to fund a major expansion of bus service south of the Fraser. TransLink can’t boost fares, nor can it impose a car tax. Many mayors are dead set against any more property tax increases, and TransLink has few other sources of ready cash.

Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom says there will be a rapid bus service, but thus far no one has said where the money will come from. If TransLink decides to go ahead with the service and there is no other source of funding, it may mean major cuts to bus routes in other parts of the region, including perhaps even Vancouver and Burnaby. Politicians and citizens there will almost certainly react with outrage.

TransLink has done a few minor service adjustments to South Fraser bus routes, to take effect next week, and while this will add a touch more service on a couple of routes, none of the adjustments have anything to do with the Port Mann bus service.

The next few weeks will see just how much scrambling will take place, and may also be a prelude to next May’s provincial election. With tolls coming for sure, and bus service uncertain, the governing BC Liberals face a very bleak future in South Fraser ridings.

Meanwhile, the NDP, with a solid lead in the polls, likely won’t say anything on this issue, preferring to let the Liberals dig their own graves.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

 

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