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Apr 29,2010 Tri City News

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Rather than blow up and rebuild TransLink yet again, transportation minister Shirley Bond has opted to work with the existing mayors' council and give the regional transportation authority more financial flexibility.

Bond unveiled changes Thursday she described as "minor" and praised TransLink for doing much already to cut costs by reorganizing its executive and adjusting routes.

TransLink's 10-year expansion plan will no longer need to be fully funded instead it will only have to budget for spending in the first three years.

"It will remove the impediment of looking for funding for projects that are eight and nine years down the road," Bond said, adding it's hard to make forecasts that far ahead.

Bond said the mayors have taken a "constructive and conciliatory" approach and demonstrated a strong desire to work with the province to hammer out a new funding formula to build both the $1.4-billion Evergreen Line as well as other needed transit expansions.

"I am going to pursue that aggressively with them," she said. "I think we're going to be able to sit down and have a serious discussion about how the mayors bring their share of the project to the table."

The mayors council has voting power over fare and tax increases for TransLink.

Bond has previously indicated she sees room for them to raise property taxes which the mayors have resisted and wouldn't say if she will grant TransLink new powers to tax or raise revenues.

Some mayors feared Bond would impose a system to fund the Evergreen Line, possibly in a way that would meet Victoria's repeated promises to build the new SkyTrain line to Coquitlam but leave TransLink unable to extend rapid transit lines in Vancouver and Surrey.

Although TransLink has ambitious expansion plans, they are currently on hold.

The mayors last year approved only $130 million in new revenue  through fare hikes, higher fuel taxes and a tripling of the tax on pay parking  to bail TransLink out and avert drastic cuts.

It was to be a temporary solution while cities lobby the province for new funding, possibly through road pricing or regional tolls.

A review of TransLink ordered last year by Bond had recommended other changes, notably halving the size of the mayors' council and setting aside some seats for provincial representatives.

It also recommended the mayors council get full power to appoint directors to the TransLink board, rather than the current system where the province and some business groups control the vetting process.

Bond said she won't proceed with such changes for now, but doesn't rule out further steps if talks with the mayors are unproductive.

Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender, who chairs the mayors council, said he was "delighted" with the changes and Bond's commitment to work with local cities.

"We are going to be able to sit down and look at the Evergreen Line, look at what its needs are in the short term, but also look at the long-term strategy to make sure we don't do something on a one-off basis," he said.

TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis called the changes "all positive."

He said a change that will let TransLink propose new expansions along with revenue increases at any time of year, rather than only by July 31, will remove artificial deadlines.

That means the search for a solution for the Evergreen Line won't necessarily be delayed a year if the province and mayors are unable to reach a new understanding before July.

Jarvis said TransLink is cutting $30 million this year and has eliminated 96 positions over the past year, including six executives.

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