TransLink isn't sure why it's not collecting as much in gas tax as it expected. Motorists aren't buying as much gas – at least not within Metro Vancouver.

TransLink finding less gas tax to guzzle

Eight per cent drop in revenue stream problematic for Metro Vancouver transit authority

A big drop in TransLink’s gas tax revenue may be because of the difficult economy, more efficient cars or more motorists driving out of town for cheaper fill-ups.

The latest estimates suggest the transportation authority will end 2011 earning almost $26 million less than it expected from the current 15-cent-per-litre fuel tax it charges within Metro Vancouver.

The eight per cent differential – $298.5 million for the full year compared to the $324.3 million budgeted – casts doubt on the future reliability of the gas tax, according to a TransLink third-quarter financial report.

The shortfall is particularly troubling because TransLink has just won approval from Metro Vancouver mayors and the provincial government to raise the gas tax another two cents next April to generate an estimated $44 million needed to help fund the Evergreen Line and other transit upgrades.

At the current rate, more than half the new money would be eaten up making up for the shortfall – assuming the two-cent increase generates as much as it’s supposed to.

Spokesman Ken Hardie said fuel sales are down generally in B.C., but added work is underway to “drill further into the phenomenon.”

TransLink has asked federal agencies to look at the revenue capture and reporting systems.

One aim, Hardie said, is to determine whether large numbers of drivers are heading to areas free of the TransLink gas tax, like the Fraser Valley or Washington State, where gas is even cheaper.

“If we saw lower sales here but remarkably higher sales in the Fraser Valley, that would speak to the issue of leakage as people go out of their way to get cheaper gas,” he said. “We’re also working with Washington State to check on gas sales near the border.”

Vehicles have become steadily more efficient – both by manufacturer design and consumer choice.

“If electric vehicles take off, that is very clearly also going to be a factor,” Hardie said. “All of the indications are pointing to people using less fuel. Which is a good thing.”

Another factor in the drop in gas sales, Hardie said, appears to be that more motorists are switching to transit.

Transit ridership for the first nine months of 2011 is on a record pace, running five per cent ahead of the same period in 2010, when a huge number of visitors rode the system during the Olympics.

Although new riders mean more fare revenue, TransLink also normally has to pay for more service, which means a net loss once the lost gas tax is factored in.

There was no significant service boost this year, although TransLink did succeed in reconfiguring routes to more efficiently carry riders and generate two per cent more from the farebox with the existing bus fleet.

Hardie said the gas tax problem underscores the need to find new and more diversified revenue sources for TransLink – the subject of negotiations next year between mayors and the province. Possible options include an annual vehicle levy or road pricing.

TransLink statistics also show complaints from riders are up sharply.

Bus passengers are most frequently complaining about overcrowded buses, full buses that pass them without stopping as well as buses that arrive earlier or later than scheduled.

“There is more crowding, there are more pass-ups – certainly more than we want to see,” Hardie said.

He said TransLink’s increased use of social media like Twitter has also opened more avenues for the public to lodge complaints.

Tweeted complaints (see feed below) are welcomed, Hardie added, because they give transit managers real-time insight into trouble spots, where they may be able to react quickly and throw on more service.

@jeffnagel

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