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A Skytrain is pictured in transit in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia on June 5, 2016. (Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail)
A Skytrain is pictured in transit in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia on June 5, 2016. (Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail)

B.C. to match federal funds of $2.2-billion for Metro Vancouver transit Add to ...

British Columbia’s Liberal government announced on Friday that it will match the $2.2-billion the federal government has promised for transit in the Lower Mainland, reversing the province’s stand from just nine days earlier.

“We will be matching the Trudeau government dollar for dollar …” said Peter Fassbender, the minister responsible for the transportation authority TransLink. “That’s $4.4-billion.”

The reversal means provincial and federal money will cover about 80 per cent of the costs of major projects, including a new subway line along Vancouver’s busy Broadway corridor and a light-rail transit system in Surrey and Langley. It sends municipalities into a scramble to come up with the remaining share.

The Opposition NDP quickly dismissed the announcement as cynical pre-election politics, saying Christy Clark’s government has done nothing but stall transit improvements for four years.

Local mayors were more diplomatic, saying they welcomed the province’s change of direction. “I think they heard the message,” Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said.

Ms. Hepner and other mayors had expressed disappointment last week when Finance Minister Mike de Jong insisted the province would stick to its formula of providing for one-third of major projects, despite the federal government’s budget promise to increase its share to 40 per cent. Mayors had asked the province to provide a share equal to the federal money, but Mr. de Jong was adamant that cities would have to make do.

Ms. Hepner said she was also relieved the province is committing to a dollar figure of $2.2-billion, rather than a percentage, which provides more security as TransLink now moves forward into procurement.

New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Coté called it a “significant shift” by the provincial government that helps fill in one large gap in the mayors’ transit plan, a 10-year expansion project that was priced at $7.5-billion when it was first in development three years ago. A replacement for the Pattullo Bridge between New Westminster and Surrey is not included in the funding announced so far.

Under a 33-per-cent commitment, the province potentially would have put in only $1.8-billion rather than the $2.2-billion Mr. Fassbender announced.

Promising a dollar number rather than a fixed percentage of the whole project gives both levels of government built-in protection if the costs increase.

When asked by reporters why the province had changed its stand so quickly, Mr. Fassbender said that “we had to do an analysis and we’ve done that work.” Mr. de Jong did not say any such consideration would be done when he responded on the day the federal budget was released.

However, NDP MLA Harry Bains, from the Surrey-Newton riding, said the last-minute change of heart, just before the election writ is about to drop, is playing politics.

“This Premier decided to play politics before by sending this whole issue to a referendum that was very divisive,” he said. “Four years later, we have nothing to show for it south of the Fraser. Everyone suffered as a result of her lack of leadership.”

Now, he said, the Premier is just hoping people will forget that she did nothing for four years.

One question that is still unresolved with the transit funding is how to pay for the final 20 per cent of the mayors’ plan, which is not covered by any current federal, provincial or regional commitments.

Mr. Fassbender said his ministry staff is willing to work with mayors on that. Mayors want a development-cost charge on new buildings that could be dedicated to transit. That would need provincial approval.

Mayors have said they want to move to a system of mobility pricing – which would charge drivers according to how far or where they drove in the region.

But Mr. Fassbender has said the province needs to get more information on the specifics of that before considering whether it is the right way to go.

Mr. Coté said mayors are creating a “mobility-pricing commission” that will study the different possibilities and make recommendations. The recruitment is happening now for the commission and he said everyone is hoping it can begin work in June.

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