B.C.'s mayors appear poised to ask voters to agree to a regional sales tax in the transit referendum next March to support a comprehensive new package of improvements, including a Broadway subway, light rail in Surrey, a new Pattullo Bridge and more rapid bus service everywhere.
And that's something Transportation Minister Todd Stone appears to be willing to support, with limits.
"If the mayors were to ask for a 2-per-cent increase to the provincial sales tax in the region, that could be deemed to be unaffordable," Mr. Stone said in Victoria.
"A much lesser increase, say, 0.5 per cent, could be deemed to be affordable."
Sources close to the negotiations say mayors are favouring exactly that half-per-cent regional sales tax to support their 10-year, $7.5-billion plan.
It would generate about $250-million a year of the $285-million needed.
The mayors, who had a closed meeting last Friday to hear about the plans for the referendum question, are due to go public Thursday with the preamble, question and proposed funding source.
TransLink mayors' council chair Richard Walton, also the mayor of North Vancouver district, said the team has worked to make sure voters will understand exactly what they're getting for their money when they vote.
"The ballot question is pretty clear, it's ready to go," he said. "People have to see the value proposition and they need to feel it's fair."
It then will go to cabinet Dec. 17 for approval, something Mr. Stone said he'll be advocating for.
"We want to focus our efforts over the next two weeks on pushing this over the finish line. I think we are very, very close, we're just about there," Mr. Stone said. "There are lots of people before us who have tried to agree on some long-term, sustainable funding for transit and transportation expansion – it's eluded many people and I think we are on the cusp of something quite extraordinary."
Ever since the Lower Mainland's regional transit authority, TransLink, was created in 1999, its leaders have been searching for a source of money to help pay for the constantly expanding system. Property taxes, fares and fuel taxes pay for operating costs and some major projects, but every new major addition to the system has been an agonizingly difficult process because of the limitations of the current revenue sources.
Mr. Stone's comments this week were more positive than those he made last week, when he said the province would only support a referendum that asked people for an affordable solution and indicating that he thought asking for close to $300-million a year was unaffordable. Those comments rocked transit supporters and mayors, making some believe the province was about to scupper the referendum – something that Premier Christy Clark has insisted on – at the last minute.
The pending referendum has a wide array of groups ready to plunge into action to get a yes vote, including the Vancouver Board of Trade, unions, students, the David Suzuki Foundation, B.C. chambers of commerce and mayors themselves.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, in a speech at his swearing-in Monday, devoted a substantial portion of his address to the importance of the referendum and the Broadway subway that will get built if it's successful.
"A subway is the single best thing we can do for our environment and our economy," he said at the community-centre ceremony. "So I want to ask all of you, everyone who's here today, everyone who's taking part online, I'm asking you to join this effort. Let's make ours an overwhelming vote for the future of our region."
No tax is popular, but a sales-tax increase is seen as more stable and equitable than the alternatives, although it will likely generate concern from organizations whose members are affected by sales-tax increases, like hotels, restaurants, shops and large stores. A sales-tax will likely also generate concern in municipalities close to the borders of the TransLink region, since customers may choose to shop over the line to avoid the tax.