As Vancouver and Surrey clamour for SkyTrain and light-rail expansion, the province's Transportation Minister said Wednesday it is up to Lower Mainland mayors to come up with a plan to pay for the infrastructure – one that is supported by the public – before she takes legislative action to enact it.
Mary Polak's stand, advanced during a meeting behind closed doors with the mayors' council of TransLink, suggests no quick fix to the eternal debate over how to find hundreds of millions of dollars needed for transit expansion.
In Vancouver, Mayor Gregor Robertson has become more urgent in pushing for a SkyTrain line tunnelled along the Broadway corridor that could cost $2-billion, citing the massive project as crucial to the well-being of one of B.C.'s key urban centres.
After the meeting with the minister, Mr. Robertson called again for "road pricing" – measures such as tolls, transponders or other options in which consumers pay for their use of roads – calling it a "vastly superior tool" for funding transit.
Ms. Polak, talking to reporters following her meeting with mayors, said she did not see comprehensive road pricing as feasible in the short term, arguing it would take four to five years to implement.
In addition to road pricing, Mr. Robertson said the mayors have long argued for using a share of the revenue-neutral carbon tax to pay for transit needs. While the B.C. NDP has been open to the idea, the governing Liberals have been opposed to it.
Mr. Robertson suggested it might take the coming provincial election next May to sort out the issue.
"Parties running for election need to be clear on how they are going to resolve this," he said in an interview after the mayors' meeting. "We've got to address this. The election obviously presents an opportunity for the major parties to plant their mark here and say how they're going to improve transit in Vancouver."
For years, the mayors have been urging the province to come up with revenue sources for transit beyond fare hikes, gas taxes and property taxes. Ms. Polak said after the meeting with mayors that she's not prepared to take any options to the legislature unless the mayors do more homework.
"It's a matter of being able to show they have public support for the legislation they would ask me to bring forward," she said. "If they have that work done, we'll consider what they bring forward. These are all experienced mayors. They know their communities. I believe they have the capacity to do this work."
Ms. Polak, who represents Langley and has said she is personally mindful of transit pressures in the region, said she was well aware of the high-profile transit wishlists of Vancouver and Surrey, but still needs to see a consensus among mayors on their priorities.
Mr. Robertson said he was looking for action from the legislature when it resumes sitting next February, a few months ahead of the mid-May provincial election.
Mayors' council chair Richard Walton, mayor of the District of North Vancouver, said he had not expected any breakthrough as a result of Wednesday's meeting.
"There's no quick solution. The next couple of months are going to see us working within mayors' council to try and meet the requests of the minister for a much more articulated vision."