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A new Pattullo Bridge in New Westminster, B.C., is part of the regional mayors’ proposed transit plan. (Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail)
A new Pattullo Bridge in New Westminster, B.C., is part of the regional mayors’ proposed transit plan. (Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail)

B.C. cities approve transit revamp, but funding still unclear Add to ...

All but one of the region’s 21 cities have agreed to a sweeping $7.5-billion plan to improve transit over the next 10 years, with a subway for Vancouver, light rail for Surrey, rapid buses in other growing parts of the region and a new Pattullo Bridge.

But the way to pay for it is still a murky mess. Within hours, Transportation Minister Todd Stone shot down one of the main new sources of revenue mayors recommended – the $250-million a year from carbon taxes that Lower Mainland residents pay.

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“That is not going to happen,” Mr. Stone said, insisting the money is already committed to lowering provincial income taxes. “I am certainly not going to be the person who goes out and says, ‘We’re going to jack up your income taxes.’<TH>”

That response startled Richard Walton, chair of the TransLink mayors’ council. “I’m just a little baffled,” he said. “I never heard him say that before. Our understanding was that all the sources were on the table until they were taken off. Why would we spend three or four months putting it in if we had an unequivocal statement saying not to?”

Still, there are many indications that a possible transit plan – and referendum to endorse the money for it – could move forward.

Mayors from Vancouver to Surrey, Pitt Meadows to Lions Bay, agreed the Lower Mainland’s economic future depends on the plan and represents a good compromise. Only Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan voted against it.

“There is no Plan B,” Mr. Walton said.

“If we are not successful in collectively navigating through these challenges in the months ahead, Metro Vancouver will face a serious challenge to its economic and social vibrancy. The stakes are very high.”

Every part of the region got something in the plan – new light rail in Surrey, a subway along Broadway to Arbutus, 11 new rapid-bus lines in growing suburbs, a new Pattullo Bridge and an extra SeaBus – and everyone also had to give up something.

In Vancouver, that was the piece of the Broadway subway from Arbutus to the University of British Columbia. For Surrey, the compromise was accepting a four-lane Pattullo Bridge, with a toll, and a third light-rail line that wouldn’t get started until near the end of the decade.

That resulted in a plan that would put about $2-billion apiece into Surrey and Vancouver for rail rapid transit, $1-billion for the new bridge, and $2.5-billion in the rest of the region for more buses and improved service on existing rail lines.

“What many people thought was a near-impossible task was accomplished today,” Mr. Stone said. The province has required the mayors to come up with a consensus by June 30 on a 10-year plan in order to hold a regional referendum on funding sources, which Premier Christy Clark has insisted on.

However, before that referendum can be held, the mayors and province still have to agree on what question will be asked. The mayors’ plan wanted local residents to be asked if part of the $7.5-billion should come from the $250-million a year that local residents pay in carbon tax to the province through fuel costs.

Despite Mr. Stone’s flat refusal on that one, there are some signs of compromise in other areas. Mr. Walton said mayors are prepared to ask for an additional, regional carbon tax.

Mr. Stone agreed the province needs to think about a new tolling policy. Until recently, the province had said it would not agree to co-ordinate its tolls with any plan regional mayors might come up with to charge drivers based on how far they drive, where and what time of day.

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