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Mayors give province deadline to fix transit finance impasse

Metro Vancouver mayors listen as Delta Mayor Lois Jackson speaks at Thursday
Metro Vancouver mayors listen as Delta Mayor Lois Jackson speaks at Thursday's regional mayors' council deliberations on TransLink's future.
— image credit: Jeff Nagel / Black Press

Metro Vancouver mayors have set an end-of-February deadline for the province to pony up a new funding source for TransLink or else they'll axe a looming property tax hike and force transit service cuts.

The four-month window for new talks – in light of Transportation Minister Mary Polak's offer for speedy negotiations – was proposed by Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and passed Thursday with most mayors in favour.

"It's all up to the province at this point," Robertson said. "This puts the ball back in the B.C. government's court."

But several mayors say they think there's almost no chance Victoria will agree to a controversial new revenue stream – such as a vehicle levy, road pricing or a higher carbon tax – just ahead of next spring's provincial election and predict the decision simply stalls a final vote on killing the tax until March.

"Who in their right mind would go into an election promising road pricing?" asked Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan.

"They've got nothing that they can do for us that won't have an adverse impact on their electability. For us to expect that somehow this government is going to develop the courage they've not shown in the last five years in the next four months is ridiculous."

The mayors' council motion directs TransLink to prepare a revised plan that rescinds the property tax – transit service levels would depend on whether a new funding mechanism is agreed by the Feb. 28 deadline.

But Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie predicts there will be no deal and TransLink managers will "beg us" in March not to kill the property tax hike to avert deep service cuts.

"I'm extremely doubtful this is going to work," Brodie said.

Mayors agreed last year to the temporary property tax in 2013 and 2014, lifting the average home's bill by $23 to raise an extra $30 million a year, on the promise it would never actually be used because the province would negotiate a new substitute source.

That got derailed this spring when the premier said TransLink would have to be audited first.

The audit reported this month and turned up some saving suggestions – which TransLink and the mayors doubt are all viable – but not enough to solve the short- or long-term cash crunch.

Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart said he thinks there's a "slim chance" of a new deal with the province, but said it's more likely the issue devolves into election finger-pointing.

"In the meantime, we'll have severe cuts to transit in this region, especially buses in the suburbs."

Reps from Delta, Burnaby and North Vancouver City were among those who voted against the resolution.

North Vancouver Coun. Craig Keating, who is an NDP candidate in the election, called the province's failure to deliver new funding a betrayal and "colossal abdication of leadership."

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts said it's time to clearly tell the province it must agree to provide road pricing as a new tool to fund TransLink or else "we're done."

The resolution also says there should be no service cuts or sale of assets to fund operations although such decisions are the jurisdiction of TransLink's board, not the mayors' council.

Bus service expansions that TransLink wants to proceed with include the Highway 1 RapidBus and a new B-Line express route in Surrey on King George Boulevard and 104 Avenue.

But much of the other previously promised bus service increases have already been shelved by TransLink because it's taking in less revenue than expected, due to declining revenue from the gas tax and tolls on the Golden Ears Bridge.

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