COLUMN: Owners win with more transit

I’m seldom taken in by pranks but this TransLink referendum . . . it must be an April Fool’s Day joke, right?

Mike Shields

By Mike Shields

I’m seldom taken in by pranks but this TransLink referendum . . . it must be an April Fool’s Day joke, right?

I mean politicians (and appointees) can’t make do within a given budget and the only solution is spending $6 million on a campaign to shift responsibility for a new tax away, from themselves?

I can’t roll my eyes as far back in my head as my 12-year-old niece when she says it but, “You can’t be serious?”

Yes?

Well OK then, according to its website “through negotiations with the Province of B.C., TransLink was born in 1999 . . . responsible for both the major road network and the public transit system . . . with the means to raise its own funds through taxation.”

Notably, negotiations between a provincial NDP government and the Greater Vancouver Regional District compromised on a mid-point scenario for capital projects – to be funded by transit fares, a gasoline tax of up to six cents litre, parking sales taxes, plus any new taxes the GVRD took responsibility for imposing.

So in April 2000, a $75 per vehicle levy was proposed, without which a resulting “lack of maintenance” would doom the system, according to then chairman George Puil. When ICBC balked at collecting that levy, TransLink trimmed its budget by $7 million and the province authorized two more cents a litre in gasoline taxes.

Later, TransLink also received a reallocation of federal gas taxes (2002); three more cents per litre in regional fuel tax (2007); replacement of the parking tax by property taxes (2008) and a default allocation of three per cent of all Metro property taxes (according to the Vancouver Sun as of 2014).

Simultaneously,  numerous highways, bridges, and subways were completed – though resistance by local politicians to raising property taxes meant most projects owed more to (2010 Winter Olympics-inspired) federal and provincial allocations than to TransLink efforts.

Not that such contributions are unusual:  From former Premier Glen Clark: “For the big picture stuff . . . the province has historically . . . paid the money, set the priority and turned it over.”

Unfortunately, today’s regimes in both Victoria and Ottawa find it politically preferable to balance their budgets by offloading responsibilities rather than (gasp!) spending cuts or (double gasp!!) taxation.

As neither a city planner nor regular transit user, I won’t weigh in on whether TransLink’s current expansion plans are well meaning and/or well designed.

But I resent the sneaky replacement of progressive tax strategies with regressive ones. Specifically, the Yes campaign exaggerates opposition as a vote for sitting in traffic all day long.

But by the same measure, the steady decrease in marginal rates for the top Canadian tax brackets seems like they’re trying to trick us into transferring more taxes on to the middle class.

Indeed, so much of modern Vancouver’s wealth derives from real estate appreciation, resulting from well-funded infrastructure, it’s impossible to not wonder why these “nouveau riche” shouldn’t pay for the same opportunities for future generations.

On a nominal dollar basis, property owners will derive greater benefit from any TransLink expansion, than will the low-income single parent barely scraping by.

And economically, if new revenue is absolutely essential, try something different.

In Australia, a foreign property purchase surtax raises funds while helping keep residents from being priced out of the housing markets they grew up in!

Look, regardless of the vote outcome, TransLink is going to expand: Even after the aforementioned vehicle levy failed, their expenditures doubled from 2001 to 2012 (from $631M to $1.4B, both figures in 2013 dollars).

And circa 2000, this was their raison d’etre: “Transportation was the top issue in the Lower Mainland. Skyrocketing rates of car ownership and gridlock on the roads made commuting a nightmare, as well as challenging efficient goods movement and producing environmentally damaging emissions.”

Am I missing something or is this not still the case after 15 years of TransLink “successes?”

Part 2 to follow. Mike Shields hosts SFU’s Philosopher’s Cafe at the ACT every fourth Thursday of the month.

 

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