Higher PST may pay for transit plan

METRO VANCOUVER – The Mayors’ Council decided on a question for the transit referendum Thursday, and are proposing a half-per cent PST increase to pay for the region’s transportation plans. The ballot question, which can only be answered with yes or no, is the following: Do you support a one-half percentage point (0.5%) increase to the Provincial Sales Tax in Metro Vancouver, dedicated to the Mayors’ Transportation and Transit Plan, with independent audit and public reporting? The proposed revenue source is a regional 0.5 per cent increase to the existing seven per cent provincial sales tax, which mayors say will provide the $250 million annually needed to fund the plan. All told, the transportation plan would cost $7.5 billion.

Among a variety of other projects, the plan includes Light Rapid Transit (LRT) for Surrey, a promise made by Mayor Linda Hepner during the civic election in November. She has committed to having operational LRT in the city by 2018. In her inaugural address on Dec. 8 Hepner stated promoting a “yes” vote in the referendum would be her first order of business, which she said she plans to do through an engagement strategy. After the Mayors’ Council’s announcement Thursday, Hepner said many around the table were concerned about TransLink’s governance model. She acknowledged critics’ concerns about TransLink spending, adding they are “pretty darn solid reasons,” but added, “I had to remove myself from that thinking because the plan was where I wanted to put my focus.” She noted that, if passed, all the taxes collected would go directly to the items identified on the ballot, and there would be annual reporting out of “every penny collected and every penny spent.”

She added, “to me, there was a reassurance there.” Hepner said the PST hike would translate to a $125 bill for the average family. A vehicle levy would cost $175 to raise the same amount of money, she said, which would mean multiple bills for families with more than one vehicle. “To me it was spread out across the region, which was fair, because those of us who have to drive weren’t necessarily singled out, it’s those of us who spend. If you spend more, you pay more, if you spend less, you pay less.”

Hepner emphasized that there’s more in the plan for Surrey than LRT, including replacement of the aging Pattullo Bridge, increased bus service, as well as longer SkyTrain hours. She said the infrastructure would move south of the Fraser from having 30 per cent of the transit service to close to 60 per cent. “But most important is we get the light rail,” she emphasized.

“That connectivity is so critical to connecting communities… I’m convinced that the economic development that will happen around the at-grade is really going to turn us into a powerhouse.” A group has formed to support the Mayors’ Council’s transportation plans. Called the Better Transit and Transportation Coalition, the group includes the Vancouver Board of Trade, David Suzuki Foundation, Unifor Local 111, BC Chamber of Commerce as well as the Downtown Surrey BIA. The group includes representatives from a wide variety of industries, including health, environment, business, education and more.

It grew out of the Moving in a Livable Region initiative, aimed at engaging and educating citizens about transportation issues. The coalition plans to develop a public engagement strategy to encourage a “yes” vote for the referendum, and Hepner said she plans to work with the group. Executive director of the Downtown Surrey BIA Elizabeth Model, part of the coalition, said the mayors’ plan is designed for future generations, with a clear focus on increased goods movement. “It contains plans for managing congestion more effectively over the next 30 years.

It starts with a specific 10-year plan that will begin next year if the public approves it in the regional referendum,” she noted, adding, “The real enemy here is traffic congestion.” Model said she fully supports the mayors’ PST hike proposal. “It’s equitable for everybody,” she said Thursday following the meeting. “It’s a step in the right direction. I think everybody looked at the plan overall and at different methods and this was the most reasonable for everybody.” Model is optimistic that the referendum will yield a “yes” vote. “We have to do it now. Not only for us but for the future generations, and all the growth we are experiencing, particularly south of the Fraser,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation has spoken out against the PST-hike proposal through its No TransLink Tax campaign. He noted TransLink already takes a variety of taxes, including 17 cents per litre on gas, five cents per litre of the federal government’s gas tax, property taxes, a 21 per cent parking tax and a levy on BC Hydro bills. “TransLink burns through money, and taxpayers cannot give these pyromaniacs any more matches,” said CTF’s B.C. director Jordan Bateman. The No Translink Tax campaign is also calling on the cabinet to remove the “170-word preamble” from the official voting ballot. Bateman sees it as a way to influence the vote, which he said is damaging to democracy. The campaign against the PST hike also calls on Premier Christy Clark to bring in rules forbidding TransLink to taxpayer money to fund a “yes” vote. With files from The Province

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