COLUMN: Unpopular tax hikes loom

Car tax a tough sell in Surrey, Langley and Delta, considering poor levels of transit.

There will be an extremely short honeymoon period for newly elected mayors and councillors, although Surrey’s mayor and councillors may get a bit of a break.

The unhappiness with elected officials will come when hard-hit taxpayers find out just how much more of their money mayors want to go towards TransLink to expand transit services over the next 10 years. While most people favour improvements to transit, they want someone else to pay for them. There won’t be any happiness if a car tax is proposed. Nor will there be a lot of cheering for a higher provincial sales tax or other new taxes to fund an ambitious  transit plan that mayors unveiled last spring.

The Mayors’ Council has until Dec. 11 to come up with the question for a TransLink referendum, which will be held in the spring. It will certainly involve new taxes, because current TransLink revenue is far short of paying for any of the improvements the mayors are calling for.

A car tax was part of the plan to pay for TransLink when it was first set up in 1998. When the TransLink board, which at that time was made up of elected officials, tried to proceed with it, it was met with howls of outrage from taxpayers. Many of them lived in areas like Surrey, Langley and Maple Ridge, where transit service was minimal when compared to that in the core urban area of Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster.

It didn’t help that the province had recently imposed the Millennium Line on TransLink, which was paying part of the capital cost of that new line which primarily benefitted Burnaby. The Millennium Line was designed to travel through NDP-held ridings in New Westminster, Burnaby and East Vancouver, and its approval shoved aside plans for other lines, such as the line to Richmond (the Canada Line, now built) and the Evergreen Line, which is now being built.

The car tax became such a political football that no one wanted to touch it. The NDP government, facing a provincial election, wouldn’t approve it – even though it had granted TransLink the power to impose it. The B.C. Liberals, smelling power, also decried it.

TransLink has thus received most of its additional money since that time by raising property taxes, boosting the gas tax to 17 cents a litre and jacking up bus fares, which are among the most expensive in North America.

It cannot expand services without some new sources of revenue. However, reliance on the car tax is problematic, as many areas of Metro Vancouver are badly under-serviced by transit.

Many suburban drivers ask why they should pay a tax on cars they must own to get around. Meanwhile, Vancouver residents can easily do without cars.

A boost to the provincial sales tax is fairer and regional road tolling, which apparently requires years of study to implement, would also bring a much-needed element of fairness to the transportation challenges.

Mayors were hoping for provincial carbon tax revenue, but that request was quickly denied by Transportation Minister Todd Stone. Indeed, the revenue from that tax is used to reduce other taxes such as income tax, so giving some of it to TransLink would mean hiking income taxes.

Surrey council may escape some of the criticism which is sure to come when the new tax plans are announced, as Mayor-elect Linda Hepner has said light rail will go ahead whether or not the referendum is approved. She is suggesting it could be funded through a P3 approach, with at least some of the construction paid for over the years through fares.

It’s an ambitious promise, but Surrey needs far more transit than it has today. Whether that will lead Surrey residents to approve new taxes in a referendum is an open question.

Frank Bucholtz is the editor of The Langley Times. He writes weekly for The Leader.

 

 

 

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