Business

Car levy, new carbon tax for TransLink concerns business

Business leaders are worried proposals to raise more money for TransLink by charging an annual vehicle fee or a new carbon tax in Metro Vancouver may harm the economy.

B.C. Chamber of Commerce president John Winter said he thinks the regional mayors' council should abandon the two options and accept higher property taxes for now while they pursue longer-term funding mechanisms for TransLink.

"There are far more minuses than pluses, particularly with the carbon tax and vehicle levy," he said.

Metro Vancouver mayors want the province to enable the new funding sources to raise an extra $30 million – committed last year to ensure the Evergreen Line proceeds – that will otherwise be added to property taxes starting in 2013.

They're also pushing for the provincial government to allow road pricing, which could extend tolls more consistently across the region as a long-term revenue source to build new rapid transit lines on Vancouver's Broadway corridor to UBC and through Surrey to Langley and White Rock.

Winter said a new regional carbon tax would hit key industries in Metro Vancouver, particularly cement plants and the greenhouse industry.

"They can't really change their carbon footprint," he said. "That's quite inequitable and it's a huge part of the economy."

The cost of goods and services in the region could also be forced up, he said.

Winter said a vehicle levy gives people no way to avoid paying if they own a car, so there is no daily incentive to conserve or try transit, cycling or walking.

The existing gas tax of 15 cents a litre for TransLink (rising to 17 cents April 1) at least allows motorists to drive less to reduce their fuel bill, but he acknowledged the gas tax differential in Metro also sends many drivers out of the region to refuel and contributes to cross-border shopping.

He said Surrey-area residents would be doubly hit if they have to pay a vehicle levy as well as $3-plus tolls to cross the Fraser River.

Winter said Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts' call for more modest region-wide tolling makes more sense than the vehicle levy, particularly with the Port Mann Bridge about to be tolled along with the Golden Ears Bridge.

"If driving across Burrard Inlet becomes subject to some sort of toll, so be it," Winter said. "It strikes me as being far more equitable."

The B.C. Chamber remains on record as supporting introduction of a road management system in the region – potentially similar to mayors' calls for road pricing – to raise money while controlling congestion and traffic flows.

Winter predicted the provincial government will be forced to alter its tolling policy and open up tolling of existing bridges and roads, something transportation minister Blair Lekstrom maintains isn't under consideration.

Winter said tolls on the Port Mann may have seemed a good idea to residents south of the Fraser clamouring for a new bridge a few years ago.

"But as it gets closer to fruition, memories get shorter."

Winter also said government claims that toll-averse motorists will quickly reach free bridges via the South Fraser Perimeter Road are dubious because the province's decision to build the truck route with some traffic lights will slow down trucks and traffic flow.

B.C. Trucking Association president and CEO Louise Yako also said she expects the province will be forced to consider broader tolling, noting motorists already avoid the Golden Ears Bridge because they refuse to pay there.

She said her organization understands TransLink's challenge in finding new funding as the region's population grows.

"Our concern is that whatever mechanism is chosen doesn't unfairly place a burden on commercial vehicle owners and operators," Yako said.

"We already have the highest fuel taxes in North America."

Goods movers do not have a public transit alternative to using the roads, she added.

Social media channels lit up with criticism and comments on the mayors request for new funding sources.

Many on Twitter said no vehicle levy should be approved and demanded more accountability for TransLink. (See slideshow above.)

A group calling itself Fair Tolls For B.C. has also launched an online petition calling for tolls on Metro Vancouver bridges to either be eliminated or made low and applied consistently on all major crossings.

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