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Legislate tax hikes for improved public transit: B.C. Minister

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark in Vancouver, B.C. Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011.

Jonathan Hayward/ The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/ The Canadian Press

The B.C. government will bring in legislation in the week of Oct. 17 to allow for tax hikes endorsed by Lower Mainland mayors on Friday to pay for such transit improvements as the Evergreen Line, says the Transportation Minister.

"The people of Metro Vancouver have waited a long time to see shovels in the ground on the Evergreen Line, so I anticipate being able to do that very quickly – to put it before the legislative assembly," Blair Lekstrom told a conference call.

He later specified the week of Oct. 17. "I can't predetermine the discussion we will have on the floor of the legislature, whether that will take an extended length of time or not," he said.

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Harry Bains, the NDP transportation critic, said the opposition would support the legislation, but that the government should have allowed for the use of funds from the revenue-neutral carbon tax to pay for transportation projects.

The mayors' council on regional transportation voted in favour of the two-cent-per-litre fuel tax to raise funds for the $1.24-billion transportation plan. The council also passed a $23 property tax increase.

The vote passed easily with an 81 to 34 majority under a weighted voting system in which larger cities like Vancouver have a greater vote share.

Mr. Lekstrom noted there is a provision for the province to talk to municipalities about other funding models instead of property taxes that would void that component. "I am optimistic and looking forward to those discussions," he said.

But the plan has raised the ire of the B.C. Conservatives, whose leader, John Cummins, said in a statement that the mayors who supported the package endorsed Friday failed to cut spending and protect taxpayers.

Obviously mindful of the criticism, Mr. Lekstrom, without mentioning the Conservatives, said he fully understood people are concerned about having to pay additional taxes. "I do think, looking at the most recent polls I have looked at, that people are looking forward to transit improvements and the only way to do that is to invest dollars," he said.

Premier Christy Clark noted Friday that mayors will be accountable for their decision to voters in looming municipal elections. Earlier this week, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson – among seven Lower Mainland mayors to take this week a high-profile stand in favour of the tax – was mindful of that point in an interview.

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"It may not be comfortable politically, and it may cost some of us votes. We need to walk the talk regardless of political vulnerabilities," Mr. Robertson said. "Our responsibility is to deliver for our cities and make the right decisions for the medium and long term."

Ms. Clark, who is facing criticism from B.C. Conservatives over facilitating the tax, said the key issue is improving transit options. "It's about bringing rapid transit to a community that has been promised it for over 20 years," she said, referring to the Evergreen Line.

Ms. Clark noted she used to live in Port Moody, and that it was challenging to get into Vancouver.

"That commute is terrible. That community has developed its infrastructure, has put in tonnes of housing, because they believed that rapid transit was going to come. They need that in the Tri-Cities so let's get on with it."

The Premier ruled out any immediate action by the province on TransLink governance as some have sought.

"There's no appetite to start monkeying with it before we get through municipal elections," she said. "We will look to municipal governments for direction on that, and see if we can find some consensus. I don't think this is going to be a fast process."

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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