Ottawa will consider whether to offer financial support for a proposed $3.5-billion bridge to replace the George Massey Tunnel, but it won't get tied up in details such as tolls and other local issues, the federal infrastructure minister says.
Amarjeet Sohi faced questions about federal financing for the project – which was absent from this week's budget – during a question-and-answer session held by the Richmond Chamber of Commerce. The proposed bridge over the Fraser River, linking the communities of Richmond and Delta, is a top priority of the provincial government.
"It is not the federal government's role to determine what the local priorities are," said Mr. Sohi, as he was questioned by chamber members, the bridge-supporting mayor of Delta and reporters. "It is the role of the local council and local government."
The bridge has become controversial among some of the region's mayors, who have questioned the need for the project and asked for a federal environmental review.
Mr. Sohi kept his distance from those controversies, saying Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been clear that local governments are better equipped to deal with such issues.
"We want to respect that ability of the local community to decide their priorities," he said. "We will work with them to see how those local priorities fit into the national outcomes that we want to achieve."
Asked about the use of road tolls to cover infrastructure costs, which is another suggestion put forward by local politicians, Mr. Sohi repeated that Ottawa won't get involved.
"How local communities raise revenues to pay for their share of the costs is their decision," said Mr. Sohi, noting the commitment in the federal budget to pay for up to half the cost of infrastructure projects, rather than the previous limit of one-third.
"There are various methods that different communities use. We're not going to comment on what those methods are."
Mr. Sohi said there was money left in the Building Canada fund of the former government, which could be used to help pay for the bridge. That fund was established under a 2007 plan to finance projects from 2007 to 2014.
Todd Stone, B.C.'s Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure, and Peter Fassbender, the minister responsible for TransLink, have been talking to various federal ministers about provincial transportation priorities, including the replacement for the Massey tunnel.
Mr. Sohi said the federal government remains committed to financing its share of a proposed 27-kilometre light-rail system in Surrey and Vancouver's proposed new five-kilometre subway.
Delta Mayor Lois Jackson said, after Mr. Sohi's speech, that she was pleased that he would give a fair hearing to the bridge proposal, which she deems a key piece of infrastructure in the region. She said it's time to replace the tunnel, which is almost 60 years old.
"In the past, federal governments really didn't deal with local governments," she said. "The majority of their dealings were through the province. That has changed considerably and you can see it in this [week's] budget."
Later Thursday, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson came out of a meeting with Mr. Sohi saying he was pleased with federal funding support for regional transportation plans, but one challenge will be to persuade the province to increase its funding contribution beyond the traditional one-third, now that Ottawa has increased its funding level.
"We're hopeful that we see the province adjust, given the federal government's commitment of 50 per cent of the dollars. We've got a lot of money on the table and a big need in transit investment," he said.
He said the municipalities have some limited tools such as fare increases, fuel taxes, development charges and property taxes. A plebiscite that asked voters to approve a sales-tax increase to pay for transit upgrades failed last year, and the provincial government has previously suggested any new tax proposal could mean another vote.