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Vancouver's Canada Line December 16, 2009. (John Lehmann/ The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/ The Globe and Mail)
Vancouver's Canada Line December 16, 2009. (John Lehmann/ The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/ The Globe and Mail)

B.C. gas-tax foes are blowing hot air Add to ...

After being bounced back and forth like some kind of toxic football, it appears the province is now willing to accept a two-cent-a-litre increase to the gas tax to help fund construction of the long-awaited Evergreen Line to Coquitlam.

I say "it appears" because, when it comes to funding for transit in the Lower Mainland, it's hard to believe in anything until you're actually riding it.

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B.C. Conservative Party Leader John Cummins would have us believe the increase is yet another unfair attack on the honest, hard-working, car-driving public, people for whom transit is not an option because it is infrequent or inconvenient. He says the provincial government is treating car drivers, who already pay the highest gas taxes in Canada, like "cash cows."

Mr. Cummins - and he's not the only one - says he supports the Evergreen Line, but does not support paying for it through gas tax. He says B.C. drivers already pay the highest gas tax in Canada.

In the other camp the belief that it is time for one group of commuters to finally step up and pay their fair share - they say that's why a gas tax makes sense.

No form of transportation is more heavily subsidized than private auto use. Once you buy a car and insure it, the roads, with very few exceptions, are free. Yes it's true, part of that funding comes from the 15-cents-a-litre tax on gas. But regardless of how much you drive or whether you drive at all, your tax dollars pay for road construction and maintenance, for the signal lights and other infrastructure controlling the flow of traffic, and for the police to enforce the rules. And everyone - not just car drivers - pays for the health care costs associated with auto use.

A tax on gas makes sense because it's tied to auto use. While you may live in a community that is poorly served by transit, you have a choice about what kind of vehicle you drive, and whether you share the ride. And for those who do have an option, increasing the price of gas might make you consider alternatives to getting into the car.

It's no surprise that Premier Christy Clark flinched when presented with the decision from the mayors' council on transportation. The Premier has vowed to make life easier for working families, and increasing the cost of something as necessary as gasoline feels like a step in the wrong direction.

Still, because of the way TransLink was restructured by her predecessor, Ms. Clark doesn't have to wear the decision politically. Consider the wording she used in a letter thanking the mayors' council for making a difficult decision: "The mayors' council has thoroughly reviewed available options and has chosen an option you believe best balances the interests of taxpayers and the need to improve transit services."

Ms. Clark might like to think that is the last word on the subject, but that would be wishful thinking.

Adding two cents per litre to the gas tax will raise $40-million annually and will allow TransLink to borrow the $400-million it needs to pay for its share of the $1.4-billion Evergreen Line.

But TransLink will need more money to finance other projects, like improvements to SkyTrain stations and SeaBus terminals, expanded bus service, and yes, road improvements.

That money will have to come from an increase in property tax or a vehicle levy.

If you thought a gas tax increase is politically toxic, a vehicle levy is nothing short of radioactive.

We learned that in 2000 when the board of TransLink (then made of up of Lower Mainland mayors and councillors) made the politically unpopular decision to impose a $75 vehicle levy to pay for transit. They had to defend the decision to the people who elected them. But with just months to go before a provincial election, premier Ujjal Dosanjh refused to endorse the levy, and that arguably set the stage for where we find ourselves today.

There is no end to the politics surrounding transit funding. The B.C. Conservative Party has created a website where people can sign a petition opposing the gas tax increase. You can also hear a radio advertisement on the site that blames the Premier, and not the mayors' council, for the increase.

The ad also promises that John Cummins and the B.C. Conservatives will " treat commuters with respect." I'm pretty sure by commuters, they mean people who drive cars. And I'm pretty sure "with respect" means letting them continue to own the road.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 Am and 88.1 FM in Vancouver. stephen.quinn@cbc.ca

 

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