Mayors vote for TransLink tax, fare hike to fund more transit (with VIDEO)

Metro Vancouver mayors give green light to phase one transit expansion

Metro Vancouver mayors have approved small increases to TransLink property taxes and fares to launch a long-awaited service expansion that should begin to ease transit overcrowding by early 2017.

Wednesday’s vote releases $2 billion in new funds over the next three years, much of it capital spending for new buses, SkyTrains and West Coast Express cars, but also more operating cash to pay for a 10 per cent lift in bus service.

“Today is really a Merry Christmas day for the region,” said Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, vice-chair of the mayors’ council.

“There’s been a lot of soul searching,” said Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read, whose residents were most strongly opposed to a regional sales tax for TransLink in the failed 2015 referendum. “There’s no question in my mind we have to get things moving.”

Since the referendum defeat, the new federal government boosted its share of major transit projects from one third to half, setting the stage for the defeated plan to rise from the ashes.

More Canada Line service, more frequent off-peak SkyTrain and SeaBus sailings are to begin Jan. 16, with more buses starting to run by April and HandyDart service also increasing significantly.

But almost immediately, the haggling will resume over how to finance the second phase of the mayors’ 10-year plan.

At stake is whether construction starts on schedule for the two big rapid transit projects – a Broadway SkyTrain subway in Vancouver and light rail lines in Surrey.

That second phase still requires a new regional revenue source to be hammered out between mayors and the provincial government to generate $50 million a year.

It’s unclear whether that could be an annual vehicle levy or a regional carbon tax, both of which mayors continue to favour, or whether a new referendum will be triggered.

Negotiations between the mayors and the province are to start soon in the hopes a deal can be reached before next May’s provincial election.

If not, officials say the issue will be frozen until likely next fall and could run the risk of Metro Vancouver falling behind transit projects in Toronto in Montreal in the quest for second-phase federal funding.

Also to be fleshed out is a regional development cost charge on new homes and commercial buildings that is so far undefined, requires provincial approval and would generate $15 to $20 million a year.

If it’s not in place by 2017, later planks of the phase one plan could be shelved.

Most crucially, mayors need the senior governments to quickly commit their next major capital contributions for phase two and predict it will become an election campaign issue if the province drags its feet.

“We need our provincial government to step up to the plate and play a larger role in the next components of the mayors’ plan,” New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Coté said.

“The road ahead is still a little bit foggy. There’s work to be done, but we are moving ahead,” White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin.

While Wednesday’s vote was unanimous, three Metro mayors were absent: Burnaby’s Derek Corrigan, Coquitlam’s Richard Stewart and Delta’s Lois Jackson.

Corrigan said he had a cold but would have voted against the plan had he been there. Both he and Jackson have been opponents in the past of any deal to increase property taxes.

West Vancouver Mayor Mike Smith has strongly opposed higher property taxes for TransLink, and he noted homes in his city will pay an average of $824 to the transportation authority next year.

But Smith voted in favour of phase one “with reservations” in order to get service improved, adding he will not vote for later phases unless TransLink gets a different tax power to end the pressure on property tax.

The property tax hike will be $3 more each year for the average assessed home in the region. The fare increase mean it will cost $2.40 to ride one zone by 2019, up from $2.10 now.

Road pricing is also a potential revenue source for the long term.

A commission will be struck next year to explore mobility pricing, including “a major field study on coordinated bridge and road tolling options that improve on the existing system of uncoordinated bridge tolls,” according to the plan.

The next three years will be the largest transit expansion for TransLink since 2009.

CEO Kevin Desmond said it’s urgent to improve service on bus routes that are chronically overcrowded and late.

Five new B-Line express bus routes are to be launched by 2019 on three corridors in Vancouver, plus  Fraser Highway and Lougheed Highway, connecting Maple Ridge residents to the Evergreen Line.

Design work would be funded on the rapid transit projects and Pattullo Bridge replacement, and other spending includes $32 million in seismic upgrades for various overpasses and minor bridges.

Minister for TransLink Peter Fassbender said he was pleased with the positive vote of the mayors and looks forward to more detail from the federal government on its long-term plan to fund transit.

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