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Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom, shown with Premier Christy Clark, is being pressed by Lower Mainland mayors to impose a vehicle tax to help fund public transit. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom, shown with Premier Christy Clark, is being pressed by Lower Mainland mayors to impose a vehicle tax to help fund public transit. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Lower Mainland mayors reignite vehicle levy idea Add to ...

The last time Lower Mainland mayors tried to tax private vehicles to pay for public transit, the measure floundered under an avalanche of acrimony and driver outrage.

Now, they are taking another run at the controversial idea.

Rather than covering a $30-million shortfall in transit funding with another property tax increase, the mayors are asking the province for legislation that would permit them to slap on a vehicle registration fee. They want either that or a regional carbon tax, according to a letter sent by the mayors’ council on regional transportation to Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom.

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Council chairman Richard Walton said he expects another hostile reaction to the prospect of a vehicle tax.

“Of course, people will be angry,” Mr. Walton said in an interview Monday. “[But]the challenge with trying to fund public transportation is that funds have to come from somewhere … and we don’t have many tools in the toolkit.”

In 1999, the Greater Vancouver Regional District board approved a $70 fee on all registered vehicles to help cover transit costs. But then-premier Ujjal Dosanjh of the NDP buckled under enormous pressure from car owners and killed the charge, which would have brought in about $120-million a year.

Municipalities have been struggling to raise enough public money for transit ever since.

The auto levy sought by the mayors’ council would be considerably less than the earlier, doomed fee, likely averaging about $38 dollar a vehicle. Nor would it be applied across the board, according to Mr. Walton, mayor of the District of North Vancouver. “We’d probably be looking at much lower rates for electric cars, hybrids and low-mileage vehicles,” he said.

Asked why the mayors would pursue a vehicle charge, given its history, Mr. Walton said he doesn’t think they have a choice.

Metro Vancouver municipalities have already agreed to a property tax increase averaging $23 per household, starting next year, to cover the $30-million gap. But they are now seeking alternative revenue sources to avoid tapping property owners with added taxes.

“Property taxes just can’t continue taking on an increasing burden from TransLink,” Mr. Walton said.

People realize the benefit of a robust transportation system, but paying for it is another matter, he said. “We’re just trying to get ideas out there, to find some ways of sharing the pain.”

Mr. Lekstrom, the Transportation Minister, was non-committal about the mayors’ request for the right to levy a vehicle tax, the most high-profile of a number of proposals spelled out in their letter. However, he promised to respond as quickly as possible, noting that the legislative window is only a few more months.

At the same time, Mr. Lekstrom was critical of the mayors’ decision to play down the need for an in-depth audit of TransLink’s operation to take place before seeking ways to raise additional revenue.

“If you are going to go to people and ask them to contribute more dollars for a service, you want to ensure that service is run as efficiently and effectively as possible,” the minister said. “Now, the mayors want us to enable some funding sources for them without that audit being done. I think the public may push back on that.”

In their letter to Mr. Lekstrom, the mayors said they now feel an audit by TransLink Commissioner Martin Crilly is sufficient. A more in-depth investigation would delay legislation necessary to permit new funding sources they are requesting or replace the property-tax increase, the mayors told the Transportation Minister.

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