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TransLink freezes transit upgrades after mayors withdraw tax

TransLink has slammed the brakes on its transit expansion plan after Metro Vancouver mayors voted to withdraw their commitment to raise property taxes over the next two years in the absence of a new transportation funding source.

The decision announced by TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis Tuesday freezes plans for Highway 1 express buses over the new Port Mann Bridge in dedicated lanes starting this December, linking Langley, Surrey and Lougheed Centre in Burnaby.

Also on hold is a new King George Boulevard B-Line express bus route in Surrey, general bus service increases across the region and upgrades to some Expo Line SkyTrain stations.

"We're going to put those on hold until we have an understanding of how we are going to pay for those improvements," Jarvis said, adding it is not sufficient to assume a provincial audit will turn up enough efficiencies to finance the upgrades.

"To simply rely on the the prospect of potential cost savings in the future is not fiscally sound."

Two projects will still proceed.

Construction of the Evergreen Line to Coquitlam will continue because TransLink's share of that project is fully funded by the two cent per litre gas tax increase that took effect April 1.

And a new White Rock-Langley bus route will still be launched on schedule next week.

The property tax increase, equivalent to an extra $23 per average home in 2013 and 2014, would have raised an extra $30 million in those years.

Mayors last week voted to withdraw the tax hike after the provincial government refused to allow a vehicle levy for Translink, or any other new source cities prefer over property tax. Three South of Fraser mayors opposed the motion because they didn't want to lose the promised expansion in their area.

Jarvis said planned upgrades at Metrotown, Surrey Central and Lonsdale Quay stations are on hold, but staff will try to deliver the most urgent station upgrade at Main Street.

He also said fare gates will not be in place at the Metrotown and Main Street SkyTrain stations when the new system of turnstiles and Compass smart cards is launched next year. Those two stations will have card readers but installation of gates there will wait until later – which Jarvis said was always TransLink's intention.

For SeaBus, a plan for more frequent service every 15 minutes on evenings and weekends is also shelved for now.

Design work toward a rebuild of the Pattullo Bridge is unaffected.

Jarvis said TransLink will fully support a provincial audit and is already acting on the efficiency recommendations of the independent TransLink commissioner, released last week.

Managers noted TransLink has been reconfiguring bus routes for the past two years to reallocate service from less used runs and times to ones where there's heavier unmet demand.

The commissioner last week rejected an extra fare increase for 2013, meaning TransLink must instead cut costs by $20 million a year.

Combined with the lost property tax increase, TransLink finds itself short $50 million of expected revenue going into next year.

Jarvis and senior staff warn there will be "tradeoffs" depending on how far TransLink must go to wring more cash out of its operations.

The search for savings could end up at odds with TransLink's aims to roll more buses into underserved areas, deliver accessible transit options and reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Jarvis said staff are pursuing suggested savings in the HandyDart custom transit service for the disabled, but noted TransLink remains committed to providing the costlier service to ensure accessibility.

"We're not prepared to compromise service for these customers," he said.

Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom called TransLink's decision to suspend the expansion projects appropriate, but added the province's audit should be concluded by the end of summer and he will reopen talks with mayors over short-term funding options then if necessary.

He said he's optimistic new services like the Highway 1 express buses will be in place when the new Port Mann Bridge opens.

"If the internal audit finds the dollars, then the short-term funding solution is solved," Lekstrom said. "If it doesn't or only finds a portion of it, we're going to have discussions on how the remainder is raised."

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