COLUMN: There are no free rides

Transit still an issue for newly elected officials

There will be an extremely short honeymoon period for newly elected mayors and councillors, although Surrey’s mayor and councillors may get a bit of a break.

The unhappiness with elected officials will come when hard-hit taxpayers find out just how much more of their money mayors want to go towards TransLink, to expand transit services over the next 10 years.

While most people favour improvements to transit, they want someone else to pay for them.

There won’t be any happiness if a car tax is proposed. Nor will there be a lot of cheering for a higher provincial sales tax, or other new taxes to fund an ambitious transit plan that mayors unveiled last spring.

The Mayors Council has until Dec. 11 to come up with the question for a TransLink referendum, which will be held in the spring. It will certainly involve new taxes, because current TransLink revenue is far short of paying for any of the improvements the mayors are calling for.

A car tax was part of the plan to pay for TransLink when it was first set up in 1998. When the TransLink board, which at that time was made up of elected officials, tried to proceed with it, it was met with howls of outrage from taxpayers. Many of them lived in areas like Surrey, Langley and Maple Ridge, where transit service was minimal when compared to that in the core urban area of Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster.

It didn’t help that the province had recently imposed the Millennium Line on TransLink, which was paying part of the capital cost of that new line which primarily benefited Burnaby. The Millennium Line was neatly designed to travel through NDP-held ridings in New Westminster, Burnaby and East Vancouver, and its approval shoved aside plans for other lines, such as the line to Richmond (the Canada Line, now built) and the Evergreen Line, which is now being built.

The car tax became such a political football that no one wanted to touch it. The NDP government, facing a provincial election, wouldn’t approve it – even though it had granted TransLink the power to impose it. The BC Liberals, smelling power, also decried it.

TransLink has thus received most of its additional money since that time by raising property taxes, boosting the gas tax to 17 cents a litre and jacking up bus fares, which are among the most expensive in North America.

It cannot expand services without some new sources of revenue. However, reliance on the car tax is problematic, as many areas of Metro Vancouver are badly underserviced by transit, particularly communities south of the Fraser, along with Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows.

Many suburban drivers ask why they should pay a tax on cars they must own to get around. Meanwhile, Vancouver residents can easily do without cars, and in fact more and more of them are choosing to do just that.

A boost to the provincial sales tax is fairer, and regional road tolling, which apparently requires years of study to implement, would also bring a much-needed element of fairness to the transportation challenges which face everyone, whether they drive or use transit.

Mayors were hoping for provincial carbon tax revenue, but that request was quickly denied by Transportation Minister Todd Stone. Indeed, the revenue from that tax is used to reduce other taxes such as income tax, so giving some of it to TransLink would mean boosting income taxes.

Surrey council may escape some of the criticism that is sure to come when the new tax plans are announced, as new mayor Linda Hepner has said LRT will go ahead whether or not the referendum is approved. She is suggesting it could be funded through a P3 approach, with at least some of the construction paid for over the years through fares.

It’s an ambitious promise, but there is no doubt that Surrey needs far more transit than it has today.

Whether that will lead Surrey residents to approve new taxes in a referendum is an open question.

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

 

 

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