Premier Christy Clark says a serious debate within the Lower Mainland on bridge toll reform is needed even though it will hit opposition in some cities.
Clark made the comments in a Black Press interview at the Surrey Leader, where she said concepts like blanket tolling or road pricing in the region need to be discussed.
“The proposal that we’ve heard generated in Surrey over the years that all bridges should be tolled is something people should talk about,” the premier said, although she stopped far short of endorsing anything specific.
Clark cautioned that the City of Vancouver is unlikely to agree to toll the bridges under its authority – like the Burrard and Granville Street bridges – and said that may confound efforts to create a fair system across the region.
“We also have to think about equity in the system,” Clark said. “What you might find is all the people who live in Vancouver who want to stay in Vancouver, which is a lot of them, might end up paying no tolls and everybody else around the Lower Mainland does.”
She said South of Fraser advocates of toll reform are correct when they argue the current practice of just tolling some bridges worsens congestion as drivers gravitate to free crossings.
“It redirects traffic very substantially, because some people will try to avoid the tolls,” she said, adding the only way to address that is “to make sure that everybody’s tolled.
“That’s a discussion that we still have to get to the meat of that. I expect that we will have a pretty vigorous discussion about it.”
In the 2013 provincial election campaign, Clark suggested LNG revenues would allow the province to sharply reduce the toll charged at the Port Mann Bridge.
Asked if it’s time to abandon that notion in light of fading LNG prospects, she predicted the plants will still go ahead when energy markets improve and potentially generate “very, very substantial” revenue for the province.
“This next election will be about some of the same issues. Do you want to throw in the towel on LNG and decide that you don’t want to produce this clean source of energy and export it to the world and create all these jobs?” she asked.
Referendum rule remains
Pressed on whether last year’s defeated transit tax referendum was a waste of time and money, she said it was still valuable because it forced Metro mayors to unite behind a plan for transit expansion.
“At least there’s now a plan,” Clark said. “If we hadn’t done it we might be in exactly the same place we were before the referendum where there was no plan even and no consensus among mayors.”
She said the referendum requirement on new TransLink taxes remains in effect, but added one might not be required depending on how cities choose to fund the region’s share of expansion, which may be reduced due to more generous federal government contributions.
Clark said the province still hopes the federal government will contribute to the new Massey Bridge. The new bridge’s debt will be pooled with the Port Mann’s, she said, so federal aid to the Massey could also help address concern about tolls falling short of forecast at the Port Mann.
The premier was also asked if her government has been too slow to address soaring real estate prices.
She played down the role of foreign buyers – blamed by many for creating a frenzy that has in turn spurred panic buying among locals.
Instead, Clark said the price escalation mainly reflects B.C.’s strong economic growth, coupled with an influx of Albertans – not foreigners.
“One of the impacts of having a really fast-growing economy – and we’re one of the fastest in the country at double the national average – is that property prices go up,” she said.
B.C. is moving to identify foreign buyers and add a luxury tier to the property transfer tax, but Clark said other ideas – from a speculation tax to a vacant property tax to spur rentals – are tricky to implement without creating more problems.
“What about people who buy a property and invest a lot of money in fixing it up to get it back on the market?” she asked. “Their business is renovation. It’s a legitimate change in the property. How do you not capture that in a speculation tax?”
She said it would also be unfair to force stratas to allow rentals, adding some people buy strata units specifically to avoid rental housing.
Cities need to use zoning to create more housing supply, she said, adding other measures alone will not solve the housing affordability problem.