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Dec 13,2008 Tri City News

Keep all funding options on table, B.C.’s transportation minister urges TransLink

Kevin Falcon won’t say which of the controversial new taxes being eyed by TransLink he would support.

But the transportation minister is defending the search for new revenue sources to finance an aggressive expansion of the transit system.

And he says he won’t abandon area mayors when it comes time to stand behind what emerges.

“I am not going to duck and run when it comes to saying to the people of the Lower Mainland that if we’re going to have all those benefits, it’s going to cost,” Falcon said Thursday in Surrey.

“The council of mayors will have my full and complete support as they move forward in identifying whatever options they think are the best way to move forward,” he said.

He spoke after some mayors said they fear the public’s wrath if TransLink pursues a cell phone levy — or many other controversial taxes or levies on a list of possible revenue sources.

TransLink faces a $150 million a year deficit just sustaining the existing transit system and it needs to raise $300 to $500 million a year if it’s going to build and run multiple new rapid transit lines and dramatically expand the bus fleet.

Although TransLink officials say they’ve briefed the province on the revenue ideas, Falcon said he hasn’t seen the list — which includes a vehicle levy, road tolls and possible new fees tacked on hotel rooms, business licences and new development.

Many local mayors say extra money for TransLink has to come largely from sources that don’t draw from the region’s residents and businesses.

And they’re also demanding the province give some sign of what options it could accept so TransLink doesn’t chase ones that enrage the public but have no chance of approval.

“The approach TransLink is taking is the right approach,” Falcon said.

“Put everything on the table. Make sure you look at all the options regardless of the controversy. Only after you’ve done your homework like that can you realistically start narrowing it down.”

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, the chair of the Mayors Council on Regional Transportation, won’t say which sources she favours either.

“That’s premature,” she said. “There have to be discussion of all of the options.”

TransLink management and the appointed TransLink board are to soon start winnowing the possible sources from 28 to a dozen or fewer, in consultation with the mayors’ council.

“There are definitely things that will be taken off the table,” Watts said, adding the list was assembled partly from sources used by other transit authorities across North America.

But she said the mayors’ council opposes the use of one of TransLink’s biggest traditional revenue streams.

“Property taxes are not on the table for any of us,” Watts said.

TransLink CEO Tom Prendergast wants to end up with five to seven new funding streams that will be sustainable and diversified.

They will have to be approved by the mayors council next summer or else TransLink must begin drastic cuts to the transit system to balance its budget.

Delta Mayor Lois Jackson said she’s concerned TransLink’s aggressive expansion plans and resulting growth in its debt could affect the borrowing capacity of Metro Vancouver or local cities, because they’re all backed by the same taxpayers.

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