Federal transit grants to chug slowly at first

Ottawa boosts its share to up to 50 per cent for new rapid transit lines, eases quest for new Metro Vancouver tax for TransLink

The 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 Broadway SkyTrain extension or the Surrey light rail project, both $2-billion-plus projects.

Instead, those rapid transit lines are expected to be the subject of further negotiations with Ottawa towards a future second phase of public transit grants that may not come until around the next federal election or beyond.

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Talks between Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi and Metro mayors are to begin as soon as Thursday.

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, adding it is what she expected.

She said the initial phase of money will keep the new transit lines advancing toward procurement over the next two years.

“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 good 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 now commits Ottawa to provide up to 50 per cent of the costs of public transit projects.

That’s significant as Metro mayors work with the province to hammer out a new funding source for transit.

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 or possibly as tough to sell as the one that went to referendum last year.

It would have raised $250 million a year as the region’s share towards the proposed $7.5 billion transit expansion plan, with the rest coming from federal and provincial contributions.

“The whole landscape has changed since the referendum,” Hepner said, who predicts 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.

Fassbender said he hasn’t given up hope of a federal contribution to that new bridge.

“We’re going to continue to press for that,” he said. “We’re going to see what evolves.”

The province will proceed with the Massey bridge whether Ottawa helps or not, he added.

Fassbender also welcomed federal contributions to affordable housing and to a study on the impact of foreign investment on rapidly rising real estate prices.

Another major budget commitment is $212 million for Metro Vancouver’s planned $750-million rebuild of its Lions Gate waste water treatment plant – the regional district’s top priority.

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.

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