Opinion

COLUMN: Potholes on road to transit referendum

The lineups for transit service will only get longer as the population grows unless the provincial government and Metro Vancouver mayors find a solution to their current impasse. - Black Press file photo
The lineups for transit service will only get longer as the population grows unless the provincial government and Metro Vancouver mayors find a solution to their current impasse.
— image credit: Black Press file photo

Besides gridlock on the roads and SkyTrain, Metro Vancouver mayors and the province are stuck breathing each other's exhaust on the path to a transit expansion referendum supposed to happen next March.

The BC Liberal government is largely to blame because it mandated the ill-advised referendum, ordered mayors to come up with a prioritized plan — which they did — and now is balking at contributing as much to it as the mayors want.

The province previously pledged to pay one third of the costs of new transit lines and a Pattullo Bridge replacement, and said it would urge Ottawa to match.

Perhaps the government never thought mayors would agree on a plan but now it's suffering sticker shock.

Granted, there's a limit to what Victoria can pony up for Metro without depriving other regions, and its offer came with affordability fine print.

But clarity is required.

The province must spell out the total it would contribute to Metro transit expansion over 10 years — not 12 or 15 or 20, as it suggests.

Second, the mayors must pick how they want the rest of us to pay our share.

They should first abandon the existing carbon tax as a source of revenue as there's no way the province will part with it.

And creating a new Metro-only carbon tax is little different from raising the 17-cent-a-litre gas tax, which TransLink admits is a poor mechanism that brings in less as cars get more efficient, drivers refuel out of region — even out of country — and residents drive less as transit improves and town centres densify.

Instead, the mayors need to pick either some form of annual vehicle levy or a regional sales tax, or both, with that revenue to be replaced by road pricing over the long term.

The referendum, then, should strictly be to approve the short-term source. Road or mobility pricing should not be subject to this or any future referendum. Sporadic tolling of new bridges is making toll reform inevitable and time-of-day road pricing offers big potential to ease congestion by changing drivers' behaviour.

Finally, the mayors need to torpedo the notion that voters can cast a No vote to punish TransLink and not pay any more for transit. They should declare that a defeated referendum on the new source will mean the same money will come from higher TransLink property taxes, which mayors have unfettered authority to raise.

The referendum would then become an either/or debate over how we, as a region, will fund an improved transit system that is critical to our collective future.

It would not be a none-of-the-above option for the no-new-taxes crowd or a spanking opportunity for those furious at the flaws of TransLink.

Whatever the mayors do, however, it is possible the province, having dragged its feet on a solution for years, will continue to stall, forcing an indefinite delay of the referendum.

Municipal elections in November will then bring a new crop of mayors, who may be more divided than the current bunch, giving the province an easy escape.

And even if most mayors remain united behind their worthy vision, precious time will be lost.

That would be unfortunate — and it would be the provincial government's fault.

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