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Aug 5,2009 Tri City News

Published: August 05, 2009 4:50 PM
Updated: August 05, 2009 4:53 PM

Transportation minister Shirley Bond is not happy with TransLink's call for Victoria to enable road pricing and tolling of existing bridges to help deliver a 45 per cent revenue increase for transit expansion over the next decade.

Bond says the plan isn't technically legal because it calls for additional funding sources beyond those set out in TransLink's legislation.

She accused TransLink of failing to look hard for ways to cut administration or other costs instead of seeking more money.

"That's just unacceptable," she said in an interview. "At a time when we're facing a global recession, we believe very strongly that organizations need to look internally first."

TransLink's recommended $450 million package of upgrades is the only scenario the board has tabled that would deliver the Evergreen Line, as well as rapid transit extensions in Surrey and Vancouver, along with a major bus service expansion.

The plan would require area mayors to impose a $122 vehicle levy and significantly jack fares, the fuel tax and the sales tax on pay parking lots, which together would boost TransLink's current $1-billion budget by $275 million a year.

Victoria would have to enable a further $175 million a year, through road pricing, more tolls or other sources.

"We're not contemplating at this point changing our road-pricing policies," Bond said, adding the province's policy remains that any tolled roads or bridges must still offer an untolled alternative.

Road pricing is favoured by transportation experts, who say it offers the best way to control congestion, raise money and steer traffic to off-peak times through reduced rates.

Meanwhile the proliferation of planned tolls on bridges into Surrey have led some business leaders and motorists to argue for an overhaul of the tolling policy.

A scaled-down $130 million a year option, financed by higher fares, a three-cent jump in fuel tax and a tripling of the sales tax on pay parking, would keep the transit system on life support and avert deep cuts, but deliver no expansion.

Metro Vancouver mayors may end up forced to vote for that scenario for now and take more time trying to persuade Victoria of the merits of an ambitious transit expansion, which could come to a new vote in mid-2010.

Failure to adopt one of the two board-proposed supplements by October would result in a "base case" 10-year plan that freezes revenue at current levels and would trigger an estimated 40 per cent cut in transit service.

Bond said she's disappointed TransLink didn't propose a more moderate scenario that would allow cities to contribute more than the $130 million and embark on some expansion, including construction of the promised Evergreen Line.

"It leaves little for anyone to discuss and that is really an unfortunate choice by the TransLink board," she said. "There are a number of scenarios that should have been presented to the Council of Mayors for them to grapple with."

She noted $800 million in capital funding has been committed by the province and federal government for the new SkyTrain line to Coquitlam.

But the minister was unable to explain what would happen to promised rapid transit extensions in Surrey and along Broadway in Vancouver if just enough extra money was stumped up to deliver the Evergreen Line.

TransLink officials have said the line will not be built unless a 10-year plan is adopted that delivers enough revenue to cover the higher operating costs that it would bring.

Large increases in TransLink operating costs have come in recent years due to the construction of the Canada Line, at Victoria's behest, and expansion of the bus fleet.

As a result, TransLink now faces $150-million a year annual deficits starting in 2011.

Premier Gordon Campbell and Prime Minister Stephen Harper repeated their commitments to build the Evergreen Line at a stop in the Lower Mainland Tuesday.

Bond said she believes her ministry can help TransLink find savings in areas such as road maintenance, and she suggested TransLink could have opted to reduce the $6 million a year it spends on cycling infrastructure.

But those amounts and even a major cut in administrative costs pale next to the amounts of money TransLink officials say is needed to deliver the level of expansion is needed to respond to growth in the region, get more people on transit and help B.C. meet its climate change targets.

TransLink staff and the nine-member board of directors comprised of business-oriented professionals who Victoria entrusted to decide what the region needs have unanimously backed the full $450-million package of upgrades.

Bond has also ordered a review of TransLink by B.C.'s comtroller general that she hopes will identify potential savings, and look at capping executive and board salaries.

The review is to be complete by the end of September. TransLink's commissioner will also issue findings on the 10-year plan options by the end of August.

A hard look at costs and expenses is something CEO Tom Prendergast has said was already done in the early months of the 10-year plan process.

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