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Mayors seek car levy, extra carbon tax and road pricing

New tools to fund TransLink would mainly take more cash from the pockets of motorists.  - File
New tools to fund TransLink would mainly take more cash from the pockets of motorists.
— image credit: File

Metro Vancouver drivers may pay either an annual vehicle registration fee or a new regional carbon tax to shore up TransLink's finances for the short term.

The Mayors' Council on Regional Transportation wants the provincial government to enable both of those sources as possible ways to raise $30 million a year that will otherwise get added to TransLink property taxes starting in 2013.

And the mayors are also asking the province to authorize a comprehensive system of road pricing that could add tolls to bridges, highways and other major arteries throughout the region to fund future rounds of transit expansion.

In addition to road pricing, long-term funding sources proposed in a letter from the mayors to Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom include higher gas taxes, the vehicle fee and either a regional carbon tax or a share of revenue from the existing carbon tax.

All of them would hit motorists up for more money.

"Most people get that if we want more we have to find a way to pay for it," Mayors Council vice-chair Peter Fassbender said.

"We're looking at putting everything on the table and seeing what makes sense. We're initially zeroing in on those things that the work we've done so far suggests are the most equitable and fair."

The mayors hope the province will pass legislation this spring to enable both the short- and long-term funding sources.

They would then decide exactly which of the two short-term sources to introduce later this year to avoid the property tax increase, which would charge the average Metro house an extra $23.

The mayors council would likely take a number of years to decide which longer-term funding sources to use and how to structure a road pricing system, if that is to be used.

Fassbender had no estimate yet of how much an annual vehicle fee might average, but the letter from the mayors suggests it should vary based on engine size, fuel consumption and emissions rating to reward fuel-efficient cars and punish high-emitting gas guzzlers.

TransLink previously proposed a vehicle registration fee in 2010 varying from $15 to $55 per vehicle per year, averaging $38. It was expected to generate $39 million but it did not proceed that year.

Fassbender said one option would be to charge a lower vehicle fee in parts of the region that are underserved by transit and more in areas with good service.

"We see it as [charged] across passenger and commercial vehicles – not just one category," he said. "We want to be sure whatever we do is fair and equitable across the spectrum."

He denied the request for enabling legislation now is an attempt to get new sources in place before they become a political football going into next year's provincial election.

"When it comes to government policy, there are no guarantees," Fassbender said, acknowledging the NDP could take power and dismantle new TransLink taxes.

"If it's in legislation, they have one of two choices: they honour it or they change it."

He said the mayors agree they must signal their preferred direction on TransLink funding regardless of political considerations.

The former NDP government once authorized TransLink to collect a vehicle levy but then refused to let ICBC collect it after the Opposition Liberals vowed to scrap the fee going into the 2001 election.

The decision led to a decade of underfunding of TransLink, during which a parking stall tax was briefly added only to be dismantled the next year by the province after vocal protests.

Lekstrom was non-committal on whether the province would approve a regional carbon tax or direct ICBC to collect the vehicle fee for TransLink.

He predicted many Metro residents would find the property tax increase "more palatable" than paying more to own a car or to refuel it.

And he stuck to the province's position that it is not currently considering a change to its tolling policy to allow road pricing and any move in that direction would take strong public support after massive consultation.

"I think the mayors' council has a lot of work to do there," Lekstrom said. "I can tell you at this point the government has not entertained such a scheme."

Asked if he's concerned traffic will worsen from drivers diverting from toll bridges to free routes, Lekstrom said he's not sure.

"We have the new South Fraser Perimeter Road," he said. "If people are not going to use the new [Port Mann] bridge because of the toll, they will have a free alternative."

Lekstrom said any further hike in the gas tax is likely a "non-starter" since TransLink is about to get a two cent per litre increase starting April 1.

And Lekstrom said the province definitely won't hand over any share of the existing carbon tax, which he said is fully committed for income tax reduction.

Mayors also want ongoing independent performance audits of TransLink by either the province's auditor general or its new municipal auditor to assure taxpayers they're getting good value.

But they said in the letter they want Victoria to legislate the new tools even if an in-depth audit can't be done first.

Lekstrom called that an apparent reversal from prior statements by mayors that an audit is essential ahead of new funding.

"They seem to have backed away from that a little bit," he said. "I'm not sure the public would accept that."

The mayors also hope more savings might be found within TransLink by the TransLink Commissioner, who reports next month on the justification for a planned 12.5 per cent fare increase next year.

The extra $30 million mayors are trying to raise is part of a $70-million increase in TransLink spending approved by the mayors last year to fund both the construction of the Evergreen Line to Coquitlam as well as a broader package of transit upgrades. The other $40 million comes from the gas tax hike starting next month.

In the letter, mayors said they want a veto over not just TransLink's supplemental budgets – which require extra funding – but also over the base budgets, which the mayors say often don't reflect their spending priorities but grow through an automatic three per cent a year increase in property taxes.

The mayors' council also wants the unelected TransLink board to open its meetings to the public.

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