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Updated: Premier vows audit to dodge new TransLink taxes

Premier Christy Clark hit the campaign trail Thursday in Port Moody and Chilliwack, where by-elections were announced.  - File
Premier Christy Clark hit the campaign trail Thursday in Port Moody and Chilliwack, where by-elections were announced.
— image credit: File

Premier Christy Clark says the province won't approve a vehicle levy for TransLink as requested by Metro Vancouver's mayors and will instead expect savings of $30 million to be found through an audit.

"We are not going to find it through a vehicle levy or other sources, we are going to find it within TransLink," Clark told reporters Thursday as she kicked off by-election campaigns in Port Moody and Chilliwack. "That's how we're going to close the gap and make sure this Evergreen Line gets built."

Clark gave no details of the audit or its timing, but said significant savings can likely be found in any organization that spends more than $1 billion a year.

Mayors requested the province enable the vehicle levy – or a regional carbon tax – so a backup property tax increase of $23 per average household doesn't automatically take effect in 2013.

Mayors approved a TransLink expansion plan last fall requiring an extra $70 million a year, with $40 million coming from a two-cent lift in the gas tax that takes effect next month and $30 million to come from other to-be-negotiated sources that would avoid the need for the property tax.

The premier's press secretary later said Clark was incorrect to say construction of the Evergreen Line to Port Moody and Coquitlam depends on the $30 million being found.

Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender, vice-chair of the mayors' council, said the gas tax hike is dedicated to cover TransLink's share of the 11-kilometre SkyTrain extension, while the remaining $30 million is earmarked for other transit upgrades, including the Highway 1 RapidBus service over the new Port Mann Bridge and a new B-Line express bus down King George Boulevard in Surrey.

"I appreciate the premier's enthusiasm, but the reality is the Evergreen Line is fully funded by the two cents of gas tax," he said, noting a request for proposals has already been issued and ground has been broken.

Fassbender said the mayors – who have repeatedly called for an audit of TransLink – welcome new ways to find efficiencies.

But he said it may be best to wait until April 13 when TransLink Commissioner Martin Crilly hands down his findings on TransLink efficiency and possible savings as part of his ruling on whether a 12.5 per cent fare hike next year is justified.

It may not be possible to simply apply any savings Crilly uncovers against the $30-million gap.

He could decide next year's fare hike isn't justified and veto it or reduce it, leaving TransLink, which is assuming the extra $48 million a year will arrive, to find the required savings.

That would force the transportation authority to first fill that financial hole before devoting any further savings that might be found to offset the $30 million slated to come from property tax or an alternate source.

Alternatively, Fassbender said Crilly might identify some savings but still approve the fare increase, in which case mayors would definitely want those efficiencies applied against the property tax hike.

Fassbender also noted the $70-million expansion mayors signed off on last year was predicated on existing services being maintained, adding any cuts to TransLink that reduce current service would be a backward step.

"We want to make sure we make the right decisions in the right sequence," Fassbender said. "Let's slow down a little bit and make sure everyone understands the legal framework and what's going on before we jump off any cliffs."

He also noted "significant efficiencies" have already been found through past cost-cutting efforts at TransLink, resulting in a thinning of executive ranks after the province sent in its Comptroller General. TransLink's board also made further reductions after conducting its own KPMG review.

"You can't keep squeezing the same orange every time and expect to get more juice," Fassbender said.

He said the outcome of the search for the $30 million doesn't alter the mayors' request that the province continue to work with them to consider long-term sustainable funding sources for TransLink, such as road pricing, to finance future rapid transit lines.

Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom is expected to meet the mayors again April 13.

It's not the first time Clark has misstepped on the TransLink file.

Last summer, she said the province likely would not okay a gas tax increase, sowing confusion amid the delicate negotiations then underway between the mayors and Lekstrom to ensure the Evergreen Line proceeded.

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