Minister won't rule out road tolls for TransLink

Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom expects to receive a proposal from the mayors by Monday on how to raise more cash for TransLink in the short term. - File
Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom expects to receive a proposal from the mayors by Monday on how to raise more cash for TransLink in the short term.
— image credit: File

Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom isn't ruling out an eventual policy change allowing tolls on existing roads and bridges – if Metro Vancouver mayors demanded it and the public supported it.

While the minister maintained in an interview no change in the provincial tolling policy is under consideration now or in the near future, he does not close the door entirely.

"The Mayors Council and TransLink would have to do a massive amount of public dialogue and engagement," Lekstrom cautioned, adding the mayors have the prerogative to explore and propose road pricing, among other potential new sources, to fund future transit expansion.

"At any level of government, it doesn't matter how good your idea is, if you do not get public buy in, it's probably not that good an idea," he said, referring to the province's disastrous imposition of the harmonized sales tax.

Area mayors have increasingly argued in favour of road pricing – possibly with tolls on major roads as well as bridges so motorists pay fairly to make any lengthy drive in the region.

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts this week repeated her call for a "fair tolling policy" that charges much smaller tolls of 75 cents to $1 across the region, rather than $3-plus tolls each way for the Golden Ears Bridge, new Port Mann Bridge starting this December and potentially a rebuilt Pattullo Bridge by 2018.

But such a move would require the province to alter its policy of allowing tolls only on new or improved infrastructure and only if motorists have a free untolled alternative.

"We have not had discussions nor is it on our radar whatsoever," Lekstrom said when asked whether government staff have examined the option of changing tolling the policy.

"At this point, I have no indication that it is going to be opened up whatsoever."

He said a recently leaked list of potential sources under consideration for TransLink, which included ideas like a new regional sales tax, was merely a starting point for discussion between mayors and ministry representatives.

"I can guarantee you there was a number of things on that that certainly wouldn't fly," Lekstrom said. "I'm quite confident I can speak for the vast majority of the population."

While road pricing may be a contender for long-range funding to help finance new rapid transit lines, TransLink also needs a short-term cash infusion of $30 million a year starting next year or else a $23 property tax hike will kick in.

As a result, mayors expect to unveil their request to the province for new short-term funding tools on Monday to avoid the property tax hike, which mayors agreed to as a backup mechanism last year in order to secure a start to construction of the long-delayed Evergreen Line.

Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender, the vice-chair of the mayors council, wouldn't disclose the proposed sources.

But options reportedly under discussion that can be in place by 2013 include an annual vehicle levy, further hikes in the gas tax (which climbs two cents on April 1), a new regional carbon tax or raising the parking sales tax.

Fassbender said the mayors will ask the province to pass legislation this spring enabling multiple new funding tools, leaving the mayors to decide later this year exactly which one to use to plug the $30 million gap.

"The mayors remain steadfast that we don't want that property tax to kick in," he said.

TransLink is already authorized to create a vehicle levy, but the province would still have to pass legislation requiring ICBC to collect it.

TransLink has previously estimated a vehicle levy, called a Transportation Improvement Fee, of $15 to $55 per vehicle – varying based on fuel efficiency or possibly different criteria – could generate $39 million a year.

The mayors council has also pressed for a performance audit of TransLink so taxpayers are assured there's no more waste to be carved out of the transportation authority before new or higher taxes are imposed.

Lekstrom said an audit makes sense to him and added he does not believe taxpayers would want the province to even enable new funding sources before one is done.

TransLink Commissioner Martin Crilly is to report by April 13 on whether TransLink is justified in seeking a 12.5 per cent fare hike next year.

Fassbender said Crilly's findings on TransLink's efficiency may provide enough confidence to proceed ahead of a more comprehensive audit.

As for the topic of road pricing, Fassbender said the mayors understand it would be a long process.

"We recognize that's current government policy," he said. "What we're saying is let's sit down and look at everything for the long term."

He noted TransLink is currently allowed to raise its property tax by three per cent every year.

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