July 31,2009 Vancouver Sun

Gas-guzzler drivers would pay more; $122-a-year levy proposed for all vehicles
By Kelly Sinoski, Vancouver SunJuly 31, 2009

TransLink is proposing to put tolls on all Metro Vancouver bridges and charge drivers for using the roads as part of a scheme to raise $450 million in new revenue.

Along with these so-called "road-pricing options," TransLink is considering a vehicle levy averaging $122 per vehicle per year.

It's the latest round in a long battle between the regional transportation authority and the provincial government over where TransLink will find much-needed revenue increases.

Without new revenue, TransLink is projected to go into deficit by 2011, as it subsidizes the private operators of the Canada Line and the Golden Ears Bridge for four to five years until they reach projected ridership figures.

TransLink says it needs an extra $150 million a year just to keep its current operations going.

With $300 million a year, it says it could modestly expand the public transportation system, including building the long-promised Evergreen rapid transit line from Burnaby to Coquitlam.

With $450 million more a year, it could finance all the major items on its wish list, including rapid transit lines, rail corridors and a greatly expanded bus system. With no additional money, TransLink says it will have to make huge transit service cuts as its expenses rise.

TransLink CEO Tom Prendergast said he was waiting to hear whether the province will provide legislative authority for the road-pricing options, which could see long-haul drivers and gas guzzlers paying more for using the road than drivers on short trips in fuel-efficient cars.

The proposed charges, which would increase the cost of driving in Metro Vancouver, were unanimously supported by the TransLink board but still need approval from the province and the regional mayors' council.

"At the end of the day we have to come up with the funding somewhere," Prendergast said. "It's more than about transit. It's about changing some behaviours. You drive down Hastings, Lougheed, Kingsway ... they're all crowded. The days of the free ride for automobiles worldwide is coming to an end."

The plan must be approved by the province and regional transportation commissioner in August before going to the regional mayors' council in October.

Several earlier attempts to impose a vehicle levy -- politically a hot potato -- have been dropped.

TransLink and Metro Vancouver have flirted with the notion of tolls, only to be flatly rejected by the provincial government.

Now TransLink is bringing back some of the most controversial options. "It's an issue of livability in the region at large," Prendergast said.

But at least two Metro Vancouver mayors say the recommendations -- particularly the vehicle levy -- will hurt those who have little means of viable transport: residents south of the Fraser.

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts said road pricing could work as long as it's done with a policy in place and plans to build up the transit system. Right now, there aren't enough buses to support Surrey residents, she said, let alone another million people moving into the region by 2040.

"The vehicle levy, is for me, unsupportable," she said. "There's no way I can go out to our residents and say, 'You're not going to get anything, but pay an additional property tax and a vehicle levy. You might get a bus or two.'"

Prendergast acknowledges transit service is lacking south of the Fraser. TransLink is working with municipalities to add new routes and increase population density along transportation corridors, but needs money to do so.

TransLink has the ability to collect $275 million extra a year by way of property tax increases, the vehicle levy, boosting gas taxes by three cents a litre, imposing a higher parking tax, and raising fares by seven per cent in 2016.

The road-pricing options would bring the total revenue increase to $450 million, enough to fund the Evergreen Line, upgrade existing SkyTrain stations, buy more buses, build new rail corridors, provide optimum maintenance for regional roads.

But Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said that is just another way for the province to dump costs on municipalities.