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Dec 9,2008 Tri City News

TransLink will spend $103 million more than it takes in next year – eating deeply into its reserves – on the expectation it will get the green light to raise controversial new revenue sources and get on sustainable financial footing.

The 2009 budget shows a big shortfall that will be just the start of a tide of red ink for the transportation authority in the coming years if it is restricted to current funding sources.

TransLink is quietly mulling how to raise an extra $300 to $500 million a year to expand the system and options like a vehicle levy or road tolls are among the mechanisms under consideration.

Failing to find more money will force TransLink to shelve expansion plans – including the Evergreen Line to Coquitlam – and slash existing transit service.

A closed-door presentation to the TransLink board in September warned bus service would have to be “cut by half – back to 1974 levels.”

Continuing to expand in the face of that outlook is a calculated risk, TransLink CEO Tom Prendergast agreed Monday.

“We can qualify what the level of gamble is, but it’s a gamble,” he said.

However Prendergast said the board didn’t want to “pull back on the throttle” and have transit service fail to keep pace with the region’s growth.

“We want to be in a position to keep making the investments we need to make to be ahead of the curve to meet demand.”

TransLink’s accumulated reserve will be drawn down from $371 million to $268 million next year, and is expected to be empty by 2011. Even with no expansion, deficits of $150 million a year are forecast by 2012.

Prendergast said TransLink’s new 40-year vision remains a valid long-term plan – despite the economic downturn – but expansion may not be as urgent in the first few years.

The $1.3-billion budget calls for spending 18 per cent more – or $780 million – on transit next year.

The biggest single spending item is $75 million to buy 24 more SkyTrain cars, but that purchase will only go ahead if TransLink gets approval by next summer for its new 10-year plan and the new funding sources to support it.

Other spending priorities include:

• $28 million for seven more West Coast Express cars and upgrades at Waterfront and Mission stations.

• $4 million for video surveillance systems on buses.

• $4 million to replace 28 HandyDART vehicles.

Road spending is to include $81 million for new city-led road projects, including the widening of the Fraser Highway and construction of the Coast Meridian Overpass in Port Coquitlam. Another $33 million goes to cities to help maintain the major road network.

The Transit Police get a 20 per cent budget increase to $28.4 million, allowing the force to hire an extra 15 officers.

Revenues are expected to rise. TransLink projects it will get $27 million more due to higher ridership and advertising income.

It will also take in $13 million in tolls that begin in August on the new Golden Ears Bridge.

TransLink property tax rates will also go up two per cent, bringing in an extra $8 million.

TransLink is also opening the Golden Ears Bridge and the Canada Line next year.

The system is to take possession of 48 new SkyTrain cars already on order, an extra 129 buses and a third SeaBus.

The budget was approved by TransLink’s appointed board at a closed door meeting Dec. 5.

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