Premier Christy Clark has sent the funding plan for the Evergreen transit expansion off the rails, rejecting proposals from Metro Vancouver mayors to close a $30-million funding gap with a vehicle levy.
While not specifically speaking against other proposed levies on motorists or a fallback property-tax hike, Ms. Clark said she expects TransLink to find the necessary funds from its current budget, adding that an audit of the agency announced on Thursday will unearth inefficiencies.
"Whenever you look at a big organization that spends a billion dollars a year, you can find savings," Ms. Clark said. "That's how we're going to close the gap and make sure the Evergreen line gets built."
Ms. Clark flatly rejected a funding mechanism that regional mayors had asked the province to consider earlier this month. "We are not going to find [the money]through a vehicle levy."
Although mayors said they support having an audit, they are worried that Ms. Clark's surprise announcement – a dramatic turn in discussions that have been under way for more than a year – will mean that Metro Vancouver taxpayers will get stuck with a property-tax hike next year instead. "An audit could take up to a year," said Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore, also the chair of Metro Vancouver. "But if legislation is not brought in this spring for another funding mechanism, it is very likely it won't get passed by 2013."
Regional mayors agreed to a property-tax hike late last year as a way to secure financing for the Evergreen line, but they insisted this was merely a fallback position and that the true goal was to find other funds. Unless TransLink or its auditors can uncover Ms. Clark's hoped-for efficiencies, the property tax will be enacted.
The surprise announcement has regional mayors fuming. "Incredibly frustrating," was North Vancouver Mayor Darrell Mussatto's response.
TransLink needs to come up with another $30-million a year as of next year on top of the $40-million already being raised through an increased gas tax to cover the line's construction costs.
Langley Mayor Peter Fassbender, vice-chair of the TransLink mayors' council, said the Premier seems to be "drawing the line in the sand" without even bothering to talk to mayors who struggled for the past two years over the difficult decision of what new funding mechanisms to request.
"She has never talked to me or Mayor [Richard]Walton, [the chair]" Mr. Fassbender said. Nor does she seem to have talked to her own cabinet members, he said. "I'm never surprised at things the Premier says. I think she makes decisions in isolation."
Ms. Clark announced the TransLink audit while helping kick off a by-election in Port Moody on Thursday, but didn't provide any details about who will do it or what the timeline is.
The announcement was welcomed by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which opposes any new taxes for TransLink.
Ms. Clark has not provided details on whether she is against all of the possible new money-raising mechanisms the mayors suggested to pay for new transit projects or just the vehicle levy. Her comments also appear at odds with generally harmonious discussions that had been taking place between the mayors and Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom.
It was reminiscent for many of the storm created last year when Mr. Lekstrom said the provincial government was willing to consider allowing TransLink to add two cents a litre to its existing gas tax.
The week Mr. Lekstrom and the mayors talked about it publicly, the Premier commented that she didn't think it was fair for taxpayers to be asked for more. That shook many mayors, who felt they were putting their own political capital on the line to support the measure and then were being sabotaged.
A source in the Premier's office said later that the remark happened at a time when reporters were allowed to scrum Ms. Clark endlessly and she got tired and answered poorly. Since then, her communications staff have kept her impromptu sessions with reporters short.
Once more, mayors can't understand why the Premier appears to be undercutting them when they are the ones who are prepared to take the political flak for unpopular decisions.
Mr. Moore said that when the region's mayors sent out a letter this week saying they would like to see the province consider a vehicle levy, a regional carbon tax, road pricing, or even more gas taxes, "the mayors wore that decision. We weren't asking the provincial government to wear it or own it."