Road tolls called too risky after referendum

Gordon Price, Mike Harcourt lash requirement to put transit tax to vote at business forum on transportation

Metro Vancouver mayors are foolish to even consider pushing ahead with road pricing as long as Premier Christy Clark insists any new tax for transit in the region must survive another referendum.

That was the advice from SFU City Program director Gordon Price at a Surrey Board of Trade panel discussion Wednesday on the future of transportation.

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, who was also speaking on the panel, listed some form of mobility pricing as the likely method to deliver the regional share of funding for Surrey’s $2.1-billion light rail network.

Metro mayors and Transportation Minister Todd Stone have said they intend to study road pricing as an option.

But Price predicts disaster if mayors persist with that revenue strategy in light of the July referendum defeat of a 0.5 per cent sales tax for transit.

“It’s a tax on something we’ve previously taken for granted to be free,” he said of a pricing scheme that could toll not just bridges but major roadways as well.

“The emotions on that are going to require extraordinary leadership and maturity. Don’t even start unless you’re prepared to engage with that.”

If road pricing were to be pursued, Price said, it would make sense to test it with tolls on Highway 99, coupled with much-improved transit, that he said could together solve the problem of congestion through the Massey Tunnel without the multi-billion-dollar cost of a new bridge.

“We saw what happened when we put a toll on the Port Mann Bridge – it didn’t get the traffic,” Price said. “If your issue is congestion, there’s a dramatically cheaper way to do it that won’t have all the negative impacts on the delta.”

The province has committed to building the 10-lane Massey bridge and has begun preliminary design work but there’s no price estimate or confirmation yet it will be tolled.

Both Price and former NDP premier Mike Harcourt denounced the referendum as a mistake.

“I think you’re elected to lead and make decisions,” Harcourt told the business audience in Surrey. “You don’t have referendums or plebiscites to decide on transportation infrastructure.”

He said TransLink must either be given an integrated place in a restructured Metro regional district or be shut down.

Price said the provincial government must reconsider its insistence on referendum approval for any new tax apart from property taxes, which mayors rule out.

Otherwise, he suggested, the region will remain mired in a funding standoff, while congestion and transit service worsens, and development continues without a coherent plan that meshes land use with transportation.

“If the premier doesn’t clarify there will not be another referendum, folks, that’s the end of regional planning for the foreseeable future,” Price said.

While Hepner plans to finance Surrey’s light rail lines pending a regional source, Price said the reality is the light rail operating costs will end up higher as a result and force transit service cuts elsewhere in the region.

Harcourt said he supports Surrey’s light rail plan but cautioned it needs to be integrated with good bus service feeding into it.

“You’ve got to add a few hundred buses too.”

The former premier from 1991 to 1996 urged decision makers to “be bold” and not underbuild future transit lines as happened with the Canada Line, where some stations are too small to handle four-car trains.

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