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Business voices push transit funding reform

A container is loaded onto a truck at Deltaport. Business groups have entered the debate on how to refinance TransLink, saying transit service must be maintained and expanded to ensure goods movement isn
A container is loaded onto a truck at Deltaport. Business groups have entered the debate on how to refinance TransLink, saying transit service must be maintained and expanded to ensure goods movement isn't overwhelmed by congestion.
— image credit: Port Metro Vancouver

It's no surprise when transit apostles demand more money for TransLink.

But calls to reform funding for transit are now coming from an unusual corner – business groups that usually focus more on whether trucks can haul cargo efficiently.

They fear the impasse between Metro Vancouver mayors and the province over how to finance TransLink may block transit expansion plans for years and even reduce existing service, clogging roads with car commuters who could be more efficiently carried by bus or rail.

"There seems to be some sense that if you represent business you don't care about transit," B.C. Trucking Association president Louise Yako said, adding that's dead wrong.

The BCTA is one of the business groups that have begun quiet talks in hopes of finding a fix for TransLink's cash woes.

Yako noted more secure funding sources for transit would benefit the whole region – and avert disaster.

"TransLink is facing the wall," she said. "We have a very short window of time to try and come up with a solution that is palatable for most people."

The organizer who has brought the business groups together is Bob Wilds, managing director of the Greater Vancouver Gateway Council, which represents port, airport and other transportation business interests.

Wilds, who helped persuade the province to build the new Port Mann Bridge and other Gateway program projects, agrees transit service can't be allowed to atrophy while the region's population and vehicle traffic keep climbing.

"You can't expect to solve this problem without looking at difficult and innovative ways of doing it," he said. "Maybe we need road pricing. Maybe we need system-wide tolling. Those are the kinds of things we think we need to look at."

Billions of dollars are being spent in the region on port-related Gateway roads and infrastructure, he noted.

"It will be wasted if we can't be competitive," Wilds said, adding road congestion and high gas taxes could easily drive container traffic away to rival ports.

The business groups don't want to give TransLink a blank cheque for expansion.

Part of the challenge, they suggest, is to determine the maximum amount of revenue the region could reasonably generate for TransLink through new mechanisms – and then ratchet back spending demands to fit the funding envelope.

"Everybody wants everything but there's a finite amount of money we can generate," Wilds said. "Maybe we have to revisit our ideas of what we want to have here."

Alternately, he said, maybe senior governments can be persuaded they need to give TransLink ongoing operational funding, rather than just one-time capital cost sharing.

That case could be made, he said, based on Metro Vancouver's critical role as Canada's Asia-Pacific gateway.

"I don't think it's reasonsable for local citizens to bear the full brunt of it," Wilds said.

TransLink needs new funding sources because one of its biggest ones – the gas tax – has proved unreliable and is generating less money as cars get more efficient, more drivers fill up outside Metro Vancouver and transit use rises.

"The more expensive fuel becomes the more people go out of the region to buy it and that's not a sustainable funding mechanism," Wilds said. "Maybe we've got to have a better way of road users paying their far share."

The real estate development industry has also entered the debate.

Urban Development Institute CEO Anne McMullin said project developers have increasingly become believers in strong transit after recent projects on the Canada Line swiftly sold out.

She said TransLink needs a suite of new funding options, not a strategy that relies too heavily on either property taxpayers or vehicle drivers alone.

Land-use planning for more density near transit stations must be done at the same time as planning new lines, McMullin added.

"If you concentrate density along transit lines, you increase ridership and you increase revenue."

The business interests aim to first agree on key principles before developing specific recommendations to TransLink, the province and the mayors.

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