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March 9,2007

By Jeff Nagel Black Press
Mar 09 2007

A bigger, revamped TransLink that is to ultimately extend east to Chilliwack and Hope, and north to Whistler and Pemberton will be allowed to raise the region’s gas tax by up to three cents per litre.

Transportation minister Kevin Falcon unveiled a new structure Thursday – the product of a nearly year-long governance review – that eliminates the existing TransLink board and replaces it with a “Board of Professionals” given much control and a “Council of Mayors” responsible for more strategic decisions.

Also to be killed is the despised parking lot tax TransLink set up a year ago that raises $20 million.

But the plan does provide for more revenue to address the review panel’s finding that the transportation authority will soon face a $200 million a year annual deficit.

Falcon said the reformed TransLink will be allowed to raise fuel taxes by up to three cents a litre – worth an estimated $20 to $25 million per penny – but only if it also raises the same amount from increased property taxes and a further matching amount from other sources of revenue.

He said the formula will ensure a balanced intake of money that protects home owners from the real threat that TransLink property taxes would soon soar another 40 to 50 per cent because of the looming deficits.

“That’s the great fear that the panel realized,” Falcon said. “That this is crazy. The public will go nuts. And it unfairly puts almost all of the burden onto the property tax payer.”

He said it will mean “very moderated and reasonable” property tax increases in the future, ending the rapid rise of recent years.

“They’re not going to lurch from one revenue source to another,” Falcon added.

The other sources that fuel tax hikes must not exceed would include fare increases, but also could take in profits from the high-density development of land near new transit stations.

Denser development – a commitment in the province’s throne speech that mapped out initiatives to fight climate change – is something TransLink will be expected to advance.

“It will be a requirement for provincial government dollars that TransLink as an organization design and make sure they’re going to have density around the vicinity of transit stations on these proposed lines,” Falcon said.

“You create value there,” he explained. “Developers are willing to pay big dollars to locate next to rapid transit. Those dollars can be used by TransLink to pay for a lot of these transit lines.”

Getting into the business of nearby property development has been a cash cow for some other transit agencies, like Portland and Hong Kong.

“It’s an innovation that hasn’t been explored at all and needs to be explored going forward,” Falcon said.

He said the parking stall tax – which prompted a near tax-revolt by businesses – had to go.

“It’s highly inefficient, very expensive to collect and has created havoc in the small business community,” he said.

More revenue – and more costs and responsibilities – would come if TransLink expands to include other cities like Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Mission and ultimately Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton.

The fuel tax in the GVRD, now at 12 cents a litre, would then extend to those areas, which would also channel in new amounts of property tax and fares.

Falcon said there will be “immediate negotiations” with the neighbouring cities to pursue expansion.

“From one end of the corridor to the other is what the panel would ultimately like to see,” he said. “I agree with that.”

Falcon said the council made up of all mayors in the GVRD will be more accountable than the current board of directors, which can change every year.

They’ll be charged with approving a 10-year strategic plan for the region, and have ultimate authority on taxation, other revenue sources and borrowing.

The professional board will take over most other decision making.

“They’ll be individuals with the right skill set – finance, legal, accounting, engineering and business backgrounds – that will allow them to execute and move forward with the 10-year strategic plan.”

Falcon said the board of professionals will present “two or three” options for strategic plans, along with revenue options, for the mayors to decide between.

“We’re taking the politicians and removing their ability to interfere with the day-to-day decisions of TransLink’s management,” Falcon said.

Additionally, an independent TransLink Commissioner will be appointed by the Council of Mayors for a six-year term to advise the mayors, ensure assumptions and funding forecasts from the professionals are reasonable, and closely examine any proposed fare increases to protect the public interest.

TransLink will be expected to plan transportation consistently with land-use plans drawn up by the GVRD.

Falcon said the new financing measures and broader structure will ensure TransLink can seriously pursue transit delivery into the Fraser Valley.

“It will also mean TransLink will be able to provide an express bus service along the Number 1 corridor to communities right out to Chilliwack,” he said.

“They’ll be able to go over the new Golden Ears Bridge and get onto the West Coast Express and go into Vancouver if they want or go over the newly twinned Port Mann Bridge and connect to Braid Street SkyTrain station and the rest of the system.”

He said it also guarantees TransLink can move forward with the Evergreen light rail line to Coquitlam.

“It is a significant increase of transit that is currently not available.”

Falcon said he hopes to introduce legislation this spring that would take effect in the fall.

The existing TransLink board will continue to serve until then.

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