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Mayors propose gas tax to fund transit line

A passenger on the Canada Line in Vancouver, March 27, 2009.

Andy Clark/Reuters/Andy Clark/Reuters

Metro Vancouver mayors have proposed a two-cents-a-litre fuel tax to pay for the long-delayed Evergreen Line, a $1.4-billion SkyTrain project that has been stalled for years as governments try to figure out how to help pay for it.

The fuel tax is part of a proposed funding formula announced Wednesday and designed to generate an additional $70-million per year for transportation authority TransLink, which has an annual budget of about $1.1-billion.

Along with the fuel tax, the proposal includes potential property-tax increases or - the mayors' preferred option - a new long-term revenue source that could involve a vehicle levy or some form of "road pricing" such as tolls.

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The proposal follows recent meetings between regional mayors and provincial Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom, who last month criticized mayors for not coming up with a plan to fund their share of the Evergreen Line.

"It's really great for us to be acting in concert with the minister," Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, the mayor of West Vancouver and vice-chair of the Mayors' Council on Regional Transportation, said on Wednesday.

"And also, we really feel - both parties - that it's time to look at the longer-term funding sources. It's complicated, and it's going to cause controversy, we're sure, but it's time to move beyond just gas tax and property tax."

Regional mayors have for years insisted they need another tool other than property taxes to pay for the transit needs of a growing population.

Late last year, the mayors refused to pass a supplementary budget that included a property-tax hike, saying they needed the province to commit to another source of funds.

In a statement Wednesday, Mr. Lekstrom thanked the mayors' council "for their hard work in coming up with a plan to fund their share of the Evergreen Line and other transportation projects."

The provincial and federal government have each committed about $400-million to the Evergreen Line, an 11-kilometre connection between Coquitlam and Burnaby that has been on the drawing board since the 1990s.

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The proposed fuel tax is expected to account for between $40-million and $43-million a year, with the rest of the targeted $70-million coming from other measures, including a potential vehicle levy.

Such a levy, or so-called transportation-improvement fee, would likely be based on factors such as the size of a vehicle, its fuel economy or distances travelled, Ms. Goldsmith-Jones said.

"We're really trying to move the levers over to use - patterns of travel, consumption of fuel - those kinds of things. Because property tax doesn't get us anywhere on that - it's just a regressive tax on an asset," she said.

TransLink currently collects a 15-cent-per-litre fuel tax. Its budget does not currently have any funds for expansion or upgrades.

The mayors' proposal, called "Moving Forward" aims to pay for other improvements, including additional SeaBus sailings, express bus service south of the Fraser and SkyTrain and SeaBus station upgrades.

An additional fuel tax - proposed as the provincial government is fighting to keep the Harmonized Sales Tax it introduced last year - could be a tough sell to the public, Ms. Goldsmith-Jones conceded.

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The proposed funding formula is subject to public consultation and would go to the mayors' council for a vote this fall.

If approved, the fuel-tax increase would be implemented in April of 2012. Under the proposal, property-tax hikes would take effect in 2013, unless a new long-term revenue source is implemented before the end of 2012.

The mayors' council is made up of representatives from each of Metro Vancouver's 21 municipalities, as well as the Tsawwassen First Nation, and works with TransLink's board of governors to run the transportation authority.

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