Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom says he still believes there are options besides a vehicle levy to pay for $30-million in major transit projects that are supposed to kick in next year.
But he wouldn’t say what they were in the aftermath of Premier Christy Clark’s surprise announcement on Thursday that she is ruling out any possibility of the vehicle levy that regional mayors had recommended, expecting instead that a new audit of the transportation authority TransLink will squeeze out the needed $30-million.
The announcement came as a surprise not just to mayors, but also Mr. Lekstrom.
When pressed on Friday, he said he and Ms. Clark hadn’t “collaborated on a talk” before her comments, adding that “she is my Premier. I serve in the cabinet at her discretion.”
For several years, the province has refused to consider a number of funding options for TransLink that mayors have suggested as they’ve struggled to find ways to pay for big new projects.
However, they signed a memorandum in 2010 with Gordon Campbell when he was Liberal premier promising to look for new sources of money besides the existing property taxes, gas taxes, and fares.
Mr. Lekstrom said he also recognizes the need to do something different and he is committed to trying as hard as he can to find an option besides a property-tax increase for 2013 that the mayors reluctantly passed last year as a fallback.
“There is a reality. The public can’t demand additional transit without the ability to pay for it. It’s that simple.”
Mr. Lekstrom said the region, which encompasses Metro Vancouver, is clearly going to need billions of dollars of new infrastructure in the coming years.
“We’ve got to find a collaborative way to work together to ensure how we fund that is acceptable to the population that uses that service.”
The region’s mayors say they are willing to continue talking with Mr. Lekstrom in the coming weeks to try to work something out in time for 2013.
They also want to talk to the Premier, believing she may be willing to re-consider her position on the vehicle levy when she understands that it is not meant to pay for the Evergreen Line, as she said on Thursday.
The $30-million the mayors have been trying to find is intended to pay for significant new improvements in the rest of the region, including two rapid buses in Surrey and Langley and 400,000 extra hours of service.
Ms. Clark, kicking off a by-election in Port Moody on Thursday, caused consternation and confusion when she announced, not just an audit of TransLink, which mayors have been requesting, but also her opposition to a vehicle levy as a way to pay for what she called the Evergreen Line shortfall.
Her communications director, Sara McIntyre, had to make a flurry of calls to media late in the day to explain that the Premier had misspoken and that the Evergreen Line is fully funded.
City of Langley Mayor Peter Fassbender said that, although he remains positive, “I am concerned if we tie our hands to saying we’re going to find $30-million [through an audit]and we don’t find the $30-million, what does that do. It puts us back in a no-win situation.”