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A view of Hastings Street on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, June 6, 2013.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The regional transportation authority is challenging Lower Mainland mayors to take a stand on road pricing as the province begins planning a referendum on transit funding.

"We believe this needs to be a fundamental part of our long-range strategy. If the people of this region and elected officials don't feel it needs to be, then we're going to have to step back, regroup and say: 'Well what can we really deliver?'" Bob Paddon, the executive vice-president of strategic planning for TransLink, said Wednesday as the regional authority presented a report on the issue to the Mayors' Council on Regional Transportation.

"We have been talking about them for 20 years and not taking action on them."

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Among other things, TransLink says road tolls can make the system more efficient by spreading demand to less busy times, routes and modes. The report does not detail how road pricing might work, but the hope is that mayors will green-light further study this summer.

Reflection on the concept is crucial now, says TransLink, warning of $23-billion in unfunded costs to keep the system in proper repair and also pay for the highest-priority projects as a million people are expected to take up residency in Metro Vancouver over the next three decades.

Says the report: "Going forward, we need to work to have pricing measures approved as major investment decisions are made to ensure our system continues to enjoy financial good health, provides maximum benefit to users and ultimately delivers us the quality of life we expect."

But the document also warns of equity issues. "A challenge that needs to be addressed will be potential increased costs for some users who are not able to change their travel patterns. In addition, the technical and administrative challenge of collecting user fees must be considered," the report says.

All of this comes as work begins in Victoria and the Lower Mainland on details of a referendum mandated by the provincial government to seek public approval for funding options.

The Liberals' election platform said solutions for TransLink funding challenges "need to be tested by the electorate who, ultimately, will be paying for them."

A referendum on new revenue sources is expected to be timed with municipal elections in November, 2014.

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In a recent interview with The Globe and Mail, Transportation Minister Todd Stone was sanguine about road pricing. "Nothing is free in this province. The taxpayers know that." Of the referendum, he has said the provincial government's commitment to the vote is "ironclad."

Mr. Stone's office said Wednesday the Minister would soon be discussing funding, governance, and the referendum with the chair and vice-chair of the Mayors' Council.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has been generally supportive of exploring road-pricing options, but skeptical about a referendum, which he has described as divisive.

Next week, city council is to debate a motion by Councillor George Affleck of the minority Non-Partisan Association that calls for Vancouver to press for answers on such issues as the ramifications of referendum results on the city as well as whether the vote would be binding on all parties.

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