B.C. Transportation Minister Todd Stone got the attention of Metro Vancouver mayors this week with his announcement on the fate of the proposed transit referendum as well as changes to the governance model of TransLink.
Many were caught off guard by the moves. That said, the mayors welcomed several of the decisions, particularly the reprieve that Mr. Stone gave from having to hold a referendum on how to finance transit improvements with the municipal elections in November. He offered a new deadline of June, 2015. If it is not held by then, it looks like it would be three years or more before another opportunity was available.
Mr. Stone also ceded authority over TransLink to the mayors, or at least so it seems. The minister said the unelected board of the transportation authority, which has had ultimate say over transit policies and priorities in the region for the past six years, will in future have to put its plans before the mayors' council for approval. That sounds like a subservient relationship to me.
But the minister's reforms, announced in a letter to Richard Walton, chair of the mayors' council, also left a trail of questions. Mr. Stone had best be prepared to answer them when he meets with the council next week. And they start with the changes around TransLink.
The mayors have been complaining for years that when it came to transit, their council was effectively toothless.
Mr. Stone appears to have fixed that problem, but Mr. Walton, for one, wants to hear directly from the minister what his edict means. It would appear the existing structure has been turned on its head and the council is now the board and the board is a sub-committee of the council.
"I'm sure the [TransLink] board itself is scratching its head trying to figure out what the expectations are going forward," Mr. Walton said in an interview. "We need clarification on what the reporting relationship truly is. It's not evident to me."
And then there is the referendum itself. Mr. Stone granted the mayors their wish to put the referendum off to allow more time for organizing a vision and ballot question. In his letter, the minister says that if the vision is not ready by June 30, the only time the provincial government would consider having the vote would be in association with the next municipal elections.
In normal circumstances, that would be three years from November. However, the Union of B.C. Municipalities has been urging the government to change the three-year interval to four, and there is a distinct possibility this could happen. That would put the transit referendum off until 2018, which would be a disaster for the region.
But the biggest question concerns funding sources. It's fine to come up with a transit vision for the region, but you need to know what you have at your disposal to raise the funds. It is no secret that the mayors favour some form of road pricing as well as tolls to pay for the much-needed infrastructure, including a subway down Broadway in Vancouver and a light rail system in Surrey. However, one line in Mr. Stone's note caught the mayor's attention.
It is the one that says the government will not permit new funding to be collected from the provincial transportation system situated in the region. That would include certain bridges and highways. And that would seem to preclude a referendum question that included mobility pricing and tolls as options.
If that is the case, the mayors are in a near impossible position. It would leave them few alternatives to a vehicle levy and property taxes to raise the dollars necessary to meet the transit needs of the region. A gasoline tax has been a failure as a funding source. And the mayors refuse to raise property taxes to underwrite big infrastructure development. A vehicle levy has limited potential as a revenue well.
Mr. Stone also said funding must be generated strictly within the region, which would seem to eliminate a hike in the sales tax.
"We can certainly come up with a vision," Mr. Walton told me. "But if we do all that and we discover the province has no intention of offering us anything more than a vehicle levy and property taxes, then these projects will never be achieved and we've gone through this huge exercise and raised the public's expectations for nothing.
"If that's going to be the case, then we should just put all our dreams aside and put 100 per cent of what we have into buses and training drivers."
Which would do little to meet Metro Vancouver's urgent transportation needs. At this point, it would seem the ball remains in Mr. Stone's court.