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Metro Vancouver mayors renew demand to audit TransLink

TransLink spends more than $1 billion a year to provide transportation services in Metro Vancouver, including the Canada Line. - File
TransLink spends more than $1 billion a year to provide transportation services in Metro Vancouver, including the Canada Line.
— image credit: File

Metro Vancouver mayors are again demanding the provincial government name an auditor to probe TransLink and ensure taxpayers aren't getting ripped off.

The  Mayors' Council on Regional Transportation, which controls tax increases for TransLink, had asked the province last fall to put the transportation authority under the scrutiny of its new Auditor General for Local Government (AGLG).

But Ida Chong, the minister responsible for municipalities, said in a letter TransLink's "unique governance structure" makes that difficult, adding she instead wants to get the new AGLG office running and focused on performance audits for cities and regional districts.

That answer didn't go over well with the mayors council, which voted Wednesday to raise the issue again.

"At the end of the day we just want TransLink audited – whatever mechanism they choose," Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts said.

"We'd like to get a little bit more information about the organization we're blamed for," added Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart.

Mayors also said it appears Chong doesn't really understand how TransLink works and how little the mayors control.

The minister stated in her letter that the mayors council "plays a key oversight role" in reviewing and approving plans approved by TransLink's unelected board of directors.

But the mayors contend they have no real power to shape or amend plans that the TransLink board passes – only to approve or reject the accompanying tax increases.

"She obviously doesn't have any idea," Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said of Chong.

"We're in a situation where TransLink falls between the cracks and nobody seems to realize that," Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said.

The mayors are also pressing for major reform of how TransLink is governed, which potentially could mean a return to elected mayors or councillors directly voting on plans and day-to-day spending, rather than the appointed board.

"We want to be in a position where we can actually influence the decisions coming to us in a meaningful way," Corrigan said.

TransLink Commissioner Martin Crilly, who independently advises the mayors, said the TransLink board tries to tailor its plans in such a way that most mayors will support them and approve the required taxes.

Eliminating the board and putting mayors back in direct charge could be a dangerous return to more intensive politicking, he suggested.

"You may throw yourself into a situation where you're forced to horse-trade with each other," he warned. "I'll vote for your project if you vote for my project, and we end up with a transportation system that is sub-optimal."

Corrigan said some horse-trading would be inevitable but noted the Metro Vancouver directors generally succeed in putting aside local differences for the good of the entire region.

"What's better?" he asked. "Being responsible? Or being manipulated?"

Corrigan said his main concern is that the province skews TransLink's priorities by dangling offers of grant money tied to the government's pet projects.

TransLink's board puts such projects in its base plan and funds them through automatic increases in fare and property tax for inflation over which the mayors have no veto.

If mayors had real control of plans, he said, they might have put money to other uses, rather than provincial priorities like expanding the transit U-Pass system or choosing costlier SkyTrain technology over light rail for the Evergreen Line.

Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom had indicated last year he was amenable to discussing governance reform, but Watts predicts it will still take a concerted effort to sway Victoria.

"The provincial government is not motivated to change the governance model," Watts said. "They just want us to continue to raise taxes and take the hit for it and merrily go on doing what they do."

As for audits, the mayors also say they'd be fine with the province putting TransLink under the auspices of the B.C. Auditor General, which examines provincial government spending, but the government has so far refused.

TransLink's more than $1-billion annual budget comes mainly from $430 million in transit fares, $325 million in gas taxes and nearly $300 million in property tax, with the average home paying $228 to TransLink.

North Vancouver District Mayor Richard Walton was re-elected the chair of the mayors council Wednesday, defeating Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender.

Fassbender, who was the previous chair before Walton, was acclaimed as vice-chair.

Walton said the mayors council will aim to quickly decide its vision for governance changes and take that to Victoria ahead of a possible spring session of the Legislature.

He said they're also working with the province to explore new funding options for TransLink, which could include options like a vehicle levy or more road and bridge tolling.

The mayors and the province must agree on a new revenue source by the end of this year to help fund TransLink's share of the Evergreen Line or a temporary property tax increase averaging $23 per home kicks in for 2013 and 2014.

That's in addition to the two-cent gas tax hike that takes effect in April and a 12.5 per cent transit fare increase slated for next January, subject to the commissioner's approval.

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