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Oct 14,2010 Tri City News

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B.C. Transportation Minister Shirley Bond is cranking the heat up on Metro Vancouver mayors, insisting they "honour their commitment" to deliver TransLink's $400-million share of funding for the Evergreen Line.

"They have to sort out how they're going to do that," Bond told Black Press this week. "The Evergreen Line is moving ahead. We have a partnership in place and there's a partner missing from the table."

So far, area mayors are balking at TransLink's plan to raise the typical home's property tax by $31 to help pay for the $1.4-billion line from Burnaby to Port Moody and Coquitlam ($54 if a broader package of mainly bus service improvements are added.)

The premier last month agreed to wide-ranging talks to find innovative new ways to finance TransLink.

The mayors now say they're taken by surprise that only property tax increases are proposed to cover the Evergreen Line.

But Bond accused the mayors of playing politics on the issue, adding she "finds it hard to believe" they genuinely misunderstood the province's intent and thought a full consultation on new sources could happen before Christmas.

"Once again, the mayors are positioning themselves in a very combative way and that's disappointing," Bond said.

She said it was made "very clear to the mayors" that a TransLink funding supplement for the Evergreen Line would come before them for a vote by December using existing sources and that a search for new ways to fund more priority projects would be a longer process.

"I am absolutely happy to have a discussion about additional tools," she said. "But we can't do that in a thoughtful way before December."

The federal government's pledge of $400 million for the Evergreen Line expires at the end of the year.

Most of TransLink's money now comes from property tax, fuel tax and fares. Fares are considered to be as high as riders can bear and TransLink plans already assume they'll rise 10% every three years. Fuel taxes are at the limit of what's allowed under TransLink legislation after a three-cent-a-litre increase last January.

Mayors have said loading most costs onto property taxes is a non-starter because of the rising burden on homeowners from regional property taxes to raise billions for major sewer and water plant upgrades.

TransLink can also create something called a "benefiting area property tax," which could raise more money from properties close to new rapid transit lines, although that idea hasn't yet been pursued.

A vehicle levy is also allowed under TransLink's legislation a $122 average annual charge on each vehicle could raise an estimated $150 million per year but it depends on the province agreeing to collect it, presumably through ICBC.

"We're not going to make a spur-of-the-moment decision about a vehicle levy," Bond said. "We have to put it in the context of all the other possible mechanisms that might be considered."

Mayors last Friday warned TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis it's pointless for the transportation authority to embark on public consultations on the property tax hike when they're determined to vote it down in December.

"It's a waste of time," Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said at a meeting of Metro Vancouver's regional planning committee, urging Jarvis to reconsider. "How much more clear can the mayors be? Property taxes are unacceptable."

"Our people are going to scream they will not accept it," added Pitt Meadows Mayor Don MacLean.

He said the province could still save money on the Evergreen Line by switching the project back to cheaper light rail technology, rather than SkyTrain.

"We're through that decision," Jarvis replied. "The project is approved. There's a business case to support SkyTrain."

He said a vehicle levy is an option to consider but only after TransLink gets through the current crunch to finance the Evergreen Line.

He said road pricing tolls also offers tremendous potential in the future because it's a way to raise money and simultaneously encourage alternatives to driving and control congestion. Ideally, Jarvis said, such a scheme should charge based on distance travelled, time of day and route, with options to vary the prices to encourage motorists to shift to off-peak times or underused corridors.

"For the first time, there's a recognition from the provincial government that we need to put all those things on the table and examine them," he told the mayors.

The Mayors Council on Regional Transportation unanimously voted Tuesday to urge TransLink to withdraw the proposed property tax hike, which goes to public consultations starting today (Oct. 15).

A second resolution calls for the mayors council chair (Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender), vice-chair (Port Moody Mayor Joe Trasolini) and two more mayors to meet provincial government officials to discuss alternate funding sources.

PoMo's Trasolini said the hit to property taxes would be the equivalent of an extra 2% to 4% a year for homeowners and more for industries or businesses.

Trasolini said a modest vehicle levy might offer a stop-gap solution.

A vehicle levy of $30 to $55 per car per year would raise the $39 million per year TransLink needs to finance the Evergreen Line and the perimeter road, or $68 million if it also adds the bus and SkyTrain station improvements in the bigger package.

Another three-cent jump in the gas tax could also, in theory, fund the whole package, although the higher gas taxes get, the more motorists try to conserve, cutting into how much TransLink collects.

North Vancouver City Mayor Darrell Mussatto said vehicle levies or road pricing are both controversial but are "the right thing to do" compared to simply raising property taxes.

"I've got bad news to tell people anyway," Mussatto said. "If we're going to make them upset, let's do something that's really going to make a long-term difference."

jnagel@blackpress.ca

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