Many Lower Mainland mayors are proud of themselves, for agreeing last week to an additional two-cent tax grab on gas. It’s their solution to pay TransLink’s $400 million share of the cost of the Evergreen Line in Coquitlam.
If the gas tax increase goes ahead, Lower Mainland commuters will pay the highest gas taxes in the country, with 17 cents from every litre of gas they buy going directly to TransLink. Gas prices in the Lower Mainland are already among the highest in Canada, and recent declines in the price of oil haven’t made any difference at all. They remain in the $1.35-per-litre range.
This column has been written from Alberta, where I am travelling. In Edmonton on Monday, I paid $1.06 for a litre of gas. I did so at a station within sight of Edmonton’s LRT line, which runs from the northeast side of the city to the downtown, then crosses the North Saskatchewan River to end up in the southernmost part of the city. Along the way, it passes the homes of the Edmonton Oilers and Eskimos, the University of Alberta, a major hospital, and numerous shopping areas. Drivers in Edmonton don’t pay any gas tax to operate it or the rest of the transit system, which is run by the city.
TransLink has, for many years, struggled to come up with enough cash to cover its far-flung costs. One of its tax options, the car levy, was and remains hugely unpopular because of its unfairness to those furthest reaches of the region, such as Surrey and White Rock. A car tax would mean they must pay even more to get to work, and still have no transit alternatives.
The key problem is that TransLink simply hasn’t got enough access to cash to truly improve the system, and it keeps going back to the gas tax as a Band-Aid solution. The provincial and federal governments have the taxing powers that TransLink and municipalities lack. If the provincial carbon tax collected in the region went to TransLink, that would help – but even that wouldn’t be enough.
When it comes to gas taxes, a few comparisons are in order. In most parts of B.C., gas taxes are 30.4 cents per litre, with HST on top. That adds an additional five per cent, as the provincial portion of the HST is rebated.
In Greater Victoria, where drivers also pay gas tax for transit, the gas tax is 34.07 cents plus HST. Drivers there pay an additional 3.5 cents in tax towards transit – a modest and acceptable figure.
In TransLink’s service zone, we pay 39.85 cents, including the current 15 cents per litre. If it goes to 17 cents, it will be 41.85 cents per litre. This is higher than gas taxes in the Atlantic provinces, and is far more than drivers pay anywhere else in Canada, including northern territories.
Something is wrong with this picture. South Fraser politicians should be pushing hard for a reduction in the gas tax – not an increase.
They should also lobby for minimal and fair tolls on all Lower Mainland river and inlet crossings, to distribute that load more fairly. And at the same time, they should emphatically reject any car tax to pay for a transit service that benefits the Burrard Peninsula at the expense of the South Fraser region.
If not, a tax revolt is in order. Surrey, Delta and White Rock drivers are already paying more than their share.
Frank Bucholtz is the editor of The Langley Times. He writes weekly for The Leader.