COLUMN: Transit boost welcome

Federal government has committed to pay 50% of Surrey, Delta and White Rock projects, still have to come up with local share.

The most important news in the federal budget for residents of Surrey, Delta and White Rock was very good – the federal government will pay 50 per cent of the cost of public transit projects.

The South Fraser region is badly served by transit, and the transit deficit keeps growing because of development and population growth. Two big projects designed to help reduce the deficit somewhat are LRT lines.

One is scheduled to run from Newton along King George Boulevard to 104 Avenue, and then east to Guildford. The other is supposed to run along Fraser Highway, from King George Station to Langley City. The cost of the two is estimated at $2 billion.

The budget itself did not provide funds for these projects. However, the shift in the funding formula makes it far more likely that they will actually be built.

Prior infrastructure projects have been funded on an equal one-third/one-third/one-third basis, with each level of government paying the same amount. However, local governments do not have anywhere near the taxing capacity that both the federal and provincial governments have. Thus, when the transit funding referendum was defeated last year, major projects (including the Surrey LRT lines) that a rise in the sales tax would fund were dealt a severe setback.

By agreeing to pay up to 50 per cent of the cost, the federal government has effectively reduced the share that local governments will pay to 17 per cent. The province plans to continue paying for one-third of the cost of major projects.

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said she believes the first work on the LRT projects will begin by 2018. She expects the line to Langley City to be finished by 2024.

The federal government is set to begin talking to Metro Vancouver mayors as soon as this week about transit infrastructure projects. Mayors are very optimistic that the major transit projects on their list, the Surrey LRT lines and a Broadway subway line in Vancouver, will receive federal funding.

There is still a hurdle – coming up with the local share. TransLink will need significantly more funds to pay its share that it has now. This will likely mean intense discussions among mayors, and with the province, about how best to proceed.

TransLink could still bring in a car tax, as was proposed in the late 1990s. It has that ability through legislation – although the province might still want it to be approved by referendum.

There could also be a more equitable tolling or road pricing plan, if the mayors and the province can come to a meeting of minds. Such a plan would see funds go to the province to pay for the Port Mann Bridge and Highway 1 project, and to TransLink for the Golden Ears Bridge and other transportation projects.

If all that fails, Surrey could still go it alone – although the cost to local taxpayers would be steep. Given that other transit projects have been funded on a regional basis, that would be quite unfair. However, it is also quite unlikely.

Working out how funds are raised at the local level will be a challenge, but it has been made much easier with the federal decision to fund 50 per cent of the capital costs. The federal government has the most comprehensive taxing power of all levels of government, and a commitment to improve transit in Surrey in the next decade is very welcome.

Surrey and other South Fraser residents look forward to seeing quick progress on this front in the coming months.

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