B.C.’s new Transportation Minister has no plans to change course in the province’s fractious negotiations with TransLink and local mayors, in spite of their hopes that a minister from one of the region’s most transit-strapped areas would be sympathetic.
Mary Polak grew up in Surrey and represents Langley, the two areas in Metro Vancouver where politicians are calling the loudest for new transit-funding solutions from the province.
Her two predecessors were from northern B.C., which prompted local mayors to anticipate she’d bring more personal knowledge to the issues.
But, although Ms. Polak is affirming earlier provincial promises to look at lower tolls for the new Port Mann Bridge and ensure there is a rapid-bus service when the bridge opens, she’s not taking a radically different approach to the big-picture debate on funding.
Mayors have been trying for years to get the province to provide new sources of revenue, besides property taxes, for TransLink.
The province has resisted. As a result, $30-million of planned improvements to transit south of the Fraser River that were scheduled for this year have been put on hold. These included a rapid bus on Highway 1 over the new Port Mann Bridge and another one running on Surrey’s main arterial road.
But Ms. Polak said that asking for money from the rest of the province is a difficult political sell.
“If we expend provincial tax dollars [for transit in the Lower Mainland], that’s tax dollars from around the province. I think it’s a challenge for Lower Mainland mayors to be aware of that,” said Ms. Polak, in her first broad-ranging interview about her whole portfolio since being appointed last Wednesday.
Ms. Polak said she has made the long haul herself from Langley to downtown Vancouver via the current cumbersome slow bus and SkyTrain route, so she appreciates the need for better transit south of the Fraser.
Like her predecessor, Blair Lekstrom, she also says she’s committed to making sure that when the new Port Mann Bridge opens later this year, there is rapid-bus service on it serving Langley.
“We have to have rapid bus, we have to get our heads together on that. You cannot go forward with one part of a transportation plan and not go forward with the other pieces.”
But, Ms. Polak added, the public in the Lower Mainland needs to better understand what they’re paying to TransLink and what they’re getting for that. She noted that, although there was political and public backlash to paying another $31 per average household to cover the cost of one transit improvement (the Evergreen SkyTrain line) in 2010, there was almost no comment when a Metro Vancouver tax increase of $45 per average household was put through that same year.
“It didn’t get anywhere near the outrage,” said Ms. Polak.
Ms. Polak also said it needs to be clearer to Lower Mainland residents that, although they are paying transit taxes, they got exempted from paying hospital taxes as part of the deal when TransLink was formed in 1999.
Taxpayers outside the Lower Mainland are taxed for 40 per cent of the cost of building hospitals, Ms. Polak emphasized, echoing what other transportation ministers have said done as they’ve tussled with municipal politicians about how to pay for TransLink.
Neither side has ever provided many numbers on this issue, but records on tax assessments show a Victoria homeowner with a $500,000 house paid $145.20 in hospital taxes for 2012 (and no transit taxes), while a Metro Vancouver homeowner with a $500,000 house paid $162.20 in TransLink taxes (and no hospital taxes).
However, since Metro Vancouver has an abundance of high-value homes and businesses, the overall taxes generated for TransLink in the region, which represents about half the province’s population, would be higher than those generated for hospitals in the other half.
Ms. Polak said she hopes her closer relationship with Metro Vancouver politicians will help her work out solutions with the mayors for both the $30-million immediate shortfall and a long-term funding system for transit.