The tug of war between the province and local cities over how to come up with transit money to tap into a matching federal contribution is heating up this week, with a prominent environmental group saying in a report that B.C. has broken a promise it made almost 10 years ago to fund transit.
Researchers from the David Suzuki Foundation say a provincial transit plan, announced in 2008 by then-premier Gordon Campbell, promised to contribute $4.75-billion for transit improvements across the province.
But they found only $1.1-billion has been provided since then when they did an audit of B.C. provincial budget commitments to that transit plan between 2009 and this year.
"As a result, transit service has been decreasing. Some of the traffic congestion in the Lower Mainland is a direct result of this," said Ian Bruce, the foundation's director of science and policy, who co-wrote the study. "Our report clearly shows the government recognized in 2008 that these transit investments were necessary."
Mr. Bruce said desperately needed federal money for transit is also at risk of being lost if the province doesn't come up with its fair share. So far, he said, B.C. has committed only 3 per cent of what's needed for the 10-year, $7.5-billion plan that local mayors came up with for transit improvements two years ago.
The province's apparent willingness to pass up federal money is, he said, "mind-boggling."
The report is the latest development in what has been a couple of months of negotiating between regional mayors and the province on how to come up with $370-million to match equivalent federal dollars that were promised by the Liberal government in its February budget for a first, three-year phase of transit funding in the region.
Their political standoff has prompted others to weigh in.
The Suzuki Foundation and about 30 other groups and individuals signed an open letter to the mayors' council and Premier three weeks ago, asking them to get over their differences, show leadership and come up with a plan to raise the needed money.
Community Minister Peter Fassbender has been phoning some of the groups that signed that letter.
Suzuki Foundation CEO Peter Robinson said he got a call from the minister last week, when Mr. Fassbender attempted to persuade him that the province is providing its fair share – something the foundation isn't buying, given what's happened in the past month.
Mayors made a private offer to the province on April 29 to raise property taxes by $3, increase transit fares by 2 per cent, use $100-million worth of land-sale profits and impose a new developer charge to pay for the local share of the full 10-year transit plan.
But they wanted the province to put in $50-million of the carbon taxes that are collected from local residents, commit to moving toward mobility pricing (tolls or zone charges or distance-driven charges) and give mayors direct responsibility for TransLink, the region's transportation authority.
They waited a month for a response from the province, after being asked to delay a public meeting, then were taken by surprise when Mr. Fassbender went to the media and said the province was generously coming up with $264-million for the first phase only. That leaves mayors with less for the first phase than they'd asked for and no commitment at all to the rest of the plan.
Since Mr. Fassbender's May 26 media announcement, there's been a stalemate, says Metro Vancouver chair Greg Moore.
The province hasn't officially communicated anything to the mayors, so all they know is what he told reporters.
"We so desperately want to get on with implementing this plan. We're really frustrated that we're treated differently than everyone else in the province," said Mr. Moore, pointing out that no other region has tolls on its bridges or has to hold a referendum to get needed transportation improvements.