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The Skytrain station and Broadway and Commercial in Vancouver on August 9, 2013.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Metro Vancouver mayors are asking residents of the region to pay an extra 0.5 per cent on the provincial sales tax to help pay for $7.5-billion in new transit services that include a subway across Vancouver, light rail in Surrey and expanded bus service.

If voters agree in a planned spring referendum to pay up, it will be Canada's first regional sales tax, staff for the Mayors' Council on Regional Transportation said in a background briefing on Thursday.

An average household would pay $125 a year for the increase to the province's existing 7-per-cent provincial sales tax, the staff said. The new levy would raise $250-million a year for the capital and operating costs of the new transit projects, leaving regional mayors to seek about $3-billion from the federal government and province.

At a meeting Thursday, the mayors approved the question for the mail-in referendum (scroll down to see the full ballot language). The mayor of Pitt Meadows was absent, leaving 22 mayors at the table for the vote. The mayors of Burnaby, Maple Ridge and West Vancouver voted against the proposal.

Now the proposal – question included – goes to the provincial cabinet for review, although the government has been in on discussions about the issue.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone promised a response "on this side of Christmas," adding during a conference call that he likes the question – but may tweak it a bit.

Mr. Stone said he won't be adjusting the list of projects or time frames. He said he likes the format of the question, its vision statement and explanation of what voters get, followed by the "simple ask." While Mr. Stone supports a Yes, he said the province won't fund either side of the coming debate. It will cover the estimated $5-million required to hold the mail-in vote.

He said the province remains committed to being a one-third capital funding partner on major projects that have sound business cases.

The B.C. Liberals promised a referendum to allow voters to rule on transit-expansion funding in the party's 2013 election platform. They won a fourth-straight majority.

A Yes vote would provide a way to raise regional funds for the east-west subway that was a key issue in the recent municipal election in Vancouver as well as the light rail that Surrey's new mayor, Linda Hepner, has promised to deliver by 2018 when voters next go to the polls.

The mayors previously considered but ruled out a vehicle fee, as well as a regional carbon tax, and settled on the sales tax.

Richard Walton, chair of the mayors' council, said the sales tax option emerged, in part, from cases in the United States where B.C. mayors found the sales tax polled as an acceptable option to the public.

Mr. Walton said there is no Plan B for rejection of the proposal. "It'll set back Vancouver dramatically," he said, describing a scenario in which tens of thousands of new residents arrive in the region without expanded transit to handle the growth.

Ms. Hepner said the vehicle levy would have cost families about $175 a year while a regional carbon tax would have cost more than $200 annually.

"We have tried to find an option that is the most affordable and yet delivers what we will need to deliver as our part of the plan," she told reporters after the meeting of mayors.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said the plan equitably spreads out the tax load. "The sales-tax increase is very modest and it's a very practical way to address raising investment for transit," he said.

Derek Corrigan, the mayor of Burnaby, voted against the plan, saying he opposed referendums as a means of forming public policy and does not think the mayors have enough say in governing TransLink, the regional transit authority. Other mayors raised some of these issues, but said the vote is the best option for making advances in developing transit infrastructure.

Mr. Corrigan said in an interview he would encourage Burnaby residents to vote, but not take a position on either side.

"I'm not going to actively oppose my colleagues," he said. "I gave my opinion but I lost the vote. Now I wish them luck and I hope they are successful in advancing their cause, but someone needed to say what I said."

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Text for the transit referendum ballot

Transportation And Transit Referendum

Cut Congestion - Better Service - More Buses and Rapid Transit

One million more people will live and work in Metro Vancouver by 2040. The region's mayors worked together to develop a plan to reduce congestion on roads and bridges and to provide more transit to communities across the region.

  • The Mayor’s Transportation and Transit Plan will:
  • Add more bus service to crowded routes and add new routes in growing areas.
  • Increase service on SkyTrain, Canada Line, SeaBus and West Coast Express
  • Add 11 new B-Line rapid bus routes with fast and frequent service connecting town centres.
  • Maintain and upgrade the region’s major roads.
  • Build a new earthquake-ready Pattullo Bridge.
  • Build light rail transit connecting Surrey Centre with Guildford, Newton and Langley.
  • Extend the Millennium Line tunnelled along Broadway in Vancouver.
  • Improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists.

Revenues raised through this referendum, together with Provincial and Federal contributions, will be dedicated to the Plan. Revenues and expenditures will be subject to annual independent audits and public reporting.

Do you support a one half percentage point (0.5%) increase to the Provincial Sales Tax in Metro Vancouver, dedicated to the Mayors' Transportation and Transit Plan, with independent audits and public reporting.

  • Yes
  • No