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federal budget 2016

Construction along the West 10th Avenue portion of the Broadway corridor in Vancouver March 22, 2016, where an extension of the Skytrain expansion is planned.Jeff Vinnick

The mayors of British Columbia's two largest cities say the federal budget will help to advance plans for a subway in Vancouver and light rail in Surrey through a new focus on infrastructure and transit spending.

The first budget of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's new government was embraced Tuesday by key B.C. municipal leaders, who were ticking off commitments they were looking for as they went through the document.

Aside from specific projects, few of which were mentioned by name, the president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities said the real triumph for municipalities in Canada's most westerly province is the budget's plan to boost its share of funding infrastructure projects to 50 per cent from 33 per cent – the first such shift in about a decade.

"It's a huge step forward in saying, 'We're here to give you a hand," said Al Richmond, also chairman of the Cariboo Regional District.

In Surrey, Mayor Linda Hepner said the shift will help with her plans to build 27 kilometres of light rail in British Columbia's second-largest city, with construction planned to begin in 2018. She described the funding shift as a "big deal" for municipalities.

"Large-scale projects like this, to make them a reality, need to move away from that one-third, one-third, one-third, as if we [the federal government, the provinces and the municipalities] were all equal funding partners when, in fact, we are not," Ms. Hepner said in an interview.

In Victoria, TransLink Minister Peter Fassbender said the province remains committed to paying one-third of infrastructure costs, leaving the municipalities to come up with 17 per cent on their own.

The budget provides for $460-million in transit funding for British Columbia, specifically mentioning new light-rail transit lines in Greater Vancouver. While Surrey has been developing at-grade light rail, Vancouver has been planning a five-kilometre underground extension of its SkyTrain line along the city's busy Broadway corridor. It wasn't clear which rail project the budget was referring to.

Ms. Hepner also praised spending on affordable housing, a new RCMP forensic laboratory at the Mounties' regional headquarters in Surrey, and the "surprise" outreach office for veterans in Surrey.

"It's a budget that shows [Ottawa's] very vocal acknowledgment that cities play an important role," said Ms. Hepner, who touted "unprecedented" prebudget meetings with Mr. Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau, as well as a telephone discussion with Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson had nothing but praise for the budget, although it didn't deliver his entire wish list.

"It's a down payment in good faith," he said in an interview. "It was a solid first step from a government dealing with a massive backlog of underspending."

Mr. Robertson said that the money being promised can also be used in a wide variety of ways.

"My understanding is that we have full flexibility with that funding. We're able to apply it to a combination of repairs and maintenance and bus and SkyTrain, as well as funding new projects."

The city could also use some of that money to accelerate the Broadway line's planning and design, a component of transit projects that the federal government did not cover in the past.

The budget had fewer specifics when it came to the city's other big concern: housing. It does spell out that $2.3-billion will be spent over the next two years, with $500-million going into affordable housing – double the previous level.

But that doesn't appear to provide any specific commitment or anywhere near the $500-million that Mr. Robertson had sought for Vancouver alone, as he promised 20 city sites that could be used for thousands of new units of subsidized housing.

He also noted there were "no specifics on the cultural side," but said he understood it was hard for federal officials to figure out in only four months how to deal with the overwhelming number of demands from that sector.

On Vancouver Island, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said key parts of her agenda "seem to have found a home in this budget," particularly affordable housing and a brief mention of port infrastructure she said she hoped might advance upgrades to the international Belleville ferry terminal in Victoria.

She also said there could be room in the budget for a new sewage treatment project.