B.C.’s Transportation Minister has promised the province will work with Lower Mainland mayors to develop a plan by the fall on how to pay for transit, staking out the Liberal government’s position on the messy issue only days before the election campaign officially begins.
In what was clearly a move to show some progress on a contentious file, Mary Polak also said Monday that her government is open to all possibilities for new transit revenue, even those rejected in the past, as long as they meet certain criteria. They have to be affordable, regional and not a drag on the economy, she said.
The NDP’s transportation critic, playing his part in the expected campaign jousting over transit funding, said that Ms. Polak’s announcement about the plan is just a meaningless replay.
“We sat through this movie before,” said Harry Bains, the MLA for Surrey-Newton. “It’s almost the same statement they made in September 2010, committing themselves to this exact wording. And nothing happened.”
Then-premier Gordon Campbell signed a memorandum of understanding with the mayors to develop a plan for a sustainable transit system shortly before he announced he was going to resign.
Ever since then, the region has been mired in arguments over how to pay for transit improvements that cities are demanding. The province and mayors did manage to come to an agreement on a gas-tax increase that is paying for TransLink’s part of the Evergreen Line in the northeast part of the region.
But there is no money available for the three light-rail lines that Surrey is lobbying hard for or the Broadway subway line that Vancouver wants. The two projects would cost $5-billion between them.
The positions staked out by the two B.C. parties give the public a nuanced choice to make, unlike in Ontario, where the three main parties are also debating transit funding.
There, Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne is open to the idea of tolls and taxes, while the NDP and Conservative parties are opposed.
Here in B.C., Ms. Polak said her party is committed to creating a long-term funding plan as long as it is “affordable.”
She declined to say whether any of the mechanisms proposed over the years was definitively on or off the table, including a vehicle levy or a regional carbon tax.
Mr. Bains said his party is committed to creating a long-term plan as long as it is “not burdening the working middle class.”
In the meantime, he said the NDP will put money into transit by taking some cash from the existing carbon tax, which is currently returned to taxpayers as part of the Liberal promise to make it revenue-neutral.
That will mean raising the corporate tax rate another one per cent, on top of the one-per-cent increase the Liberals announced in the recent budget, he said.
Ms. Polak also spelled out in her announcement Monday, made with TransLink mayors’ council chair Richard Walton at the Metrotown SkyTrain station, that the province will “develop governance options that work for all parties.”
Local mayors have been irate about the way TransLink is run, ever since the province removed them as the political directors of the transportation agency and created a new system where an appointed board makes all of the decisions about operations.
Mayors get to vote only when TransLink needs new money for improvements. Then the mayors have to agree on a supplementary budget that brings in increased property taxes, gas taxes or other fees.
Mr. Bains said the NDP will “fix the governance by bringing the locally elected officials onto the TransLink board.”