COLUMN: Already taxed to the max

Taxpayers have concerns about the ever-increasing burden to pay for transit.

Transit users south of the Fraser will continue to be skeptical about promises of improved transit service until they actually see more buses on the road and construction of rapid transit lines underway.

The impasse between the provincial government, which controls TransLink, and the Mayors’ Council, which has most of the tax responsibilities for the transportation organization, was eased somewhat last Thursday. The province committed $246 million towards capital costs for new projects, which means TransLink has to come up with 17 per cent of the total costs. The federal government has committed to paying 50 per cent.

Meanwhile, the mayors unveiled their funding plan, which partially addresses concerns that taxpayers have had about the ever-increasing burden to pay for transit.

The mayors suggest a modest increase in property taxes, a transit fare increase and a new development cost charge (DCC) on housing of $1,000 per unit. With those three additional revenue sources, and proposed mobility pricing by 2021, TransLink would raise $200 million of the $250 million that the added sales tax proposed last year would have raised. That tax was rejected by voters in a referendum.

That leaves it $50 million short and mayors want the province to come up with that sum in some way – perhaps through the carbon tax. Peter Fassbender, minister responsible for transit, has already rejected that.

The move towards mobility pricing by 2021, something city councils and residents of the South Fraser region have called for, would help bring some fairness to tolling, something that is long overdue for people south of the Fraser, who now pay tolls on two bridges and could soon be paying tolls on two others.

The proposal to add $1,000 per housing unit in a transit development cost charge is ill-timed. Housing costs in Metro Vancouver are going through the roof, with many younger people having little prospect of buying a first home. DCCs go directly onto the price of a new home and this tax will just make home ownership even more unattainable.

What mayors have failed to do is come up with some assurance to taxpayers they will attempt to reduce other taxation to allow for the increase in funds for transit. In cities such as Surrey, taxation has gone up significantly this year to pay for policing and other municipal priorities. Adding more transit taxes on top of this is too much.

Mayors need to look closely at their own cities and regional organizations, such as Metro Vancouver, to see if there can be some efficiencies and cost reductions. One of the main reasons the transit sales tax was rejected was that many people feel they just can’t pay more taxes. With the province taking more through BC Hydro, the Medical Services Plan and ICBC each year; bridge tolls; added property taxes and many other sundry charges; people with average incomes are becoming stretched to the maximum.

Then there is the issue of transit service in the South Fraser region. The main project in this area to benefit from the new capital funds would be the LRT line between Guildford and Newton. This project would take pressure off the bus system, but by itself does not add service to a new area. It boosts options and frequency in a busy part of Surrey. Travel times will be quite similar to today’s transit.

There is a crying need for service to areas that now have minimal transit, such as Clayton and Grandview Heights, where development has added thousands of new residents. Also needed is more frequent service along busy corridors such as Fraser Highway, where bus passengers are often left stranded as full buses have no room for them.

TransLink has been reluctant to add new routes in Surrey, largely because of its inability to pay the added operating costs. Both the mayors’ plan and the provincial commitment do little to add funds to pay for additional operating costs of new or expanded bus routes.

It’s good to see the impasses between the two sides easing somewhat. But there needs to be some more commitments made by each side.

Frank Bucholtz writes weekly for The Leader.


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