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A sky train on the Expo Line makes its way past the Dunsmuir Viaduct in Vancouver May 29, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
A sky train on the Expo Line makes its way past the Dunsmuir Viaduct in Vancouver May 29, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

A second carbon tax? Good luck with that Add to ...

It wouldn’t be an announcement on transit in Metro Vancouver if it wasn’t accompanied by confusion and uncertainty. Such was the case this week when the region’s mayors unveiled their 10-year transportation plan only to have the province wait all of two seconds to put the kibosh on a key funding source proposed in the document.

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The mayors’ $7.5-billion strategy for improving the region’s woefully inadequate transit system counted, in part, on a 50-per-cent share of the B.C. carbon tax. Almost immediately, Transportation Minister Todd Stone said there was no chance that was going to happen because it would blow a $250-million annual hole in the provincial budget.

That the mayors would have designed their transit blueprint without ensuring those funds were an option seems inconceivable. Richard Walton, the extremely able chair of the mayors’ council, says the carbon tax was discussed with the province as a potential funding tool. Maybe, he said generously, Mr. Stone assumed the mayors were talking about a new, region-wide carbon tax, which could now be in play.

“I don’t want to question his integrity,” Mr. Walton told me.

The fact is, the existing carbon tax is an obvious source of funding for transit. It was implemented in July, 2008, in an effort to get people out of their cars and reduce their carbon footprint. It always made sense to use whatever money was collected from the tax to fund transit expansion; to build the automated light rail and underground subway systems that those people leaving their cars could use.

But no. Almost immediately that money ended up going into that deep, dark hole in Victoria known as general revenue. And once the government began depending on it to finance any number of other initiatives, that was the end of it.

So the mayors will never get that money for transit and might as well forget about it.

The question now is how will they make up the shortfall? Mr. Stone has indicated that if the mayors want to propose a regional carbon tax he’ll listen. Of course, this would have to be approved ultimately by taxpayers in the region as part of the government’s mandated transit referendum – the one that everyone keeps forgetting about.

No one is quite sure what happens now. Not Mr. Walton nor his fellow mayors. The mayors were asked to come up with a transportation plan that people living in Metro Vancouver could vote on, and the provincial government is supposed to come up with the ballot box question.

The mayors’ plan depends on a number of different funding sources including road pricing, tolling, property taxes and one-third infrastructure cost contributions from Victoria and Ottawa. But Victoria has to approve those funding options and having already killed the idea of reallocating a portion of the carbon tax, who is to say it won’t also nix the idea of road pricing, which Premier Christy Clark has previously indicated she is against?

Now the mayors have to wrestle with the idea of asking their constituents to approve a second carbon tax, which would exist on top of the already-onerous gasoline tax. Good luck with that. In fact, good luck with the entire referendum. The mayors don’t want it and I can understand why there is complete reluctance on their part to campaign for it.

But without the mayors out front on this issue, it will be even harder for their plan to pass. The province has already stated it won’t campaign for approval of it. So who will? Groups like the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation are already lining up against the mayors’ plan. And there will be others.

Meantime, billions are being lost to the B.C. economy because of the numbing congestion in the region. If this referendum fails, as it surely will under the current circumstances, it will set the transportation needs of the province back years if not decades. And to my mind it will be entirely the fault of the provincial government.

The dysfunction that passes for transit governance in B.C. is quite appalling. And not surprisingly, it is the poor people stuck in the gridlock that passes for a transportation system in Metro Vancouver paying the price for the idiocy that continues to undermine this extremely important aspect of public policy.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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