A promised referendum on new TransLink taxes or tolls was the topic of debate among MLAs in the B.C. Legislature Monday.
It came as a private member’s motion was tabled to reinforce the BC Liberals’ election campaign promise to put any new TransLink revenue sources to a vote at the same time as the November 2014 municipal election.
Opposition New Democrats continue to oppose the idea, saying it threatens to keep Metro Vancouver transit stuck in neutral for years to come while the region keeps growing and congestion worsens.
“It’s a referendum that assures us that nothing much gets done till 2015, at least,” said NDP MLA Shane Simpson (Vancouver-Hastings).
He said the Liberals have failed to solve TransLink’s financial bind nearly three years after a September 2010 agreement with Metro Vancouver mayors to hammer out new funding sources.
Simpson said the paralysis at TransLink extends back to 2007, when then-Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon “had a snit” over the elected board’s deliberations about building the Canada Line and replaced them with appointees.
But New Democrats weren’t the only ones critical of the government’s record.
Newly elected Liberal MLA Marvin Hunt (Surrey-Panorama), who sat on the old TransLink board as a Surrey city councillor, told the Legislature past premiers Glen Clark and Gordon Campbell both share blame for TransLink’s failure to secure needed funding over the years.
Clark’s NDP got cold feet on implementing a $75 per year vehicle levy for TransLink in 2001, Hunt noted, and then the Campbell Liberals likewise cancelled a new parking stall tax after $5 million had already been spent preparing property assessments.
Hunt said both premiers argued they were listening to the public while TransLink wasn’t.
A referendum is the only way to end the perpetual conflict between provincial and regional interests, he added.
“I believe the taxpayers are the only ones that can actually settle this so that we can get on with building transit and transportation in the Lower Mainland.”
TransLink officials estimate $23 billion is needed over 30 years to both maintain the existing system and add new rapid transit lines.
Metro mayors have suggested funding options including a vehicle levy, road pricing and a regional sales tax.
Liberal MLA Ralph Sultan (West Vancouver-Capilano) appeared to contradict the premier’s vision for the referendum, saying it should be focused “more on governance than on choosing a specific funding model.”
Sultan said the question should simply ask “whether it’s time for the province to cut the TransLink apron strings” and let Metro Vancouver representatives take responsibility and authority.
“Most of us realize that we cannot realistically expect to pay for all of this expansion through the farebox. The taxman cometh. Choose your poison.”
Sultan also cautioned the government must learn from its mistakes introducing the HST and fighting the ensuing referendum and “get this one right.”
New Liberal MLA Scott Hamilton in Delta North predicted voters will agree spending more money for proper transit “is the right thing to do.”
George Heyman, the NDP’s new critic for TransLink, said the province should cancel the referendum and instead hand authority back to locally elected mayors and councillors.
“To let the future of the transportation system in the region hang on a vote in a referendum, I think is dangerous,” Heyman said in an interview.
He said the Liberals never held a referendum on Port Mann Bridge tolls or BC Hydro projects, and aren’t likely to do so on the promised replacement of the George Massey Tunnel either.
Heyman noted TransLink faces significant cuts in service hours between 2013 and 2015 because expected new funding sources will not have arrived in time.
TransLink also risks losing $100 million a year in federal matching funds because it won’t be able to stump up its share, he said.
Transportation Minister Todd Stone, who wasn’t present for the debate, has yet to give a clear indication of what the referendum question might look like.
He’s pledged to consult closely with Metro mayors.
It’s also not yet clear if the province or TransLink will pay the cost of holding the referendum and conducting public outreach on the options.