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Transit advocates launch campaign for provisional property-tax hike

An influential group of planners, architects, and environmentalists is launching a campaign this week to persuade hesitant Metro Vancouver mayors to commit to property-tax increases in order to kick-start a plan for massive transit expansion.

The property-tax commitment is supposed to be just a stopgap measure to give the province enough time to agree on and legislate other tax mechanisms by 2013.

But with a provincial election now scheduled for 2013 and a recent tax revolt fresh in everyone's memory, many mayors are worried the province could chicken out, leaving them stuck with the property-tax increase.

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However, the Sustainable Transportation Coalition, prepared to lead a public battle to support those taxes, warns that if the mayors waffle, any hope of getting the Evergreen Line and a host of other suburban improvements will be dead for at least two years and the region's economy will be hobbled for much longer.

"People do not understand the implications for this region. This is a really big deal and no one's been willing to champion it," said Peter Ladner, the former NPA councillor who lost to Vision Vancouver's Gregor Robertson for the mayor's job three years ago. "But if we don't do it, this will damage economic development here."

Mr. Robertson and several other mayors support the new plan but have stayed away from leading any aggressive public charge. In their place, Mr. Ladner says, the coalition's members, which include people from the Planning Institute of B.C., Architecture Canada, and the Pembina Institute, have decided they're willing to be the public advocates for something they know can be unpopular – new taxes.

The group is also lobbying the undecided, among the region's 22 mayors, to support the plan, which will be voted on within the next month.

The plan, which is a supplement to TransLink's basic operating budget, would raise $700-million over 10 years. That would provide TransLink's share for the long-delayed Evergreen Line in the northeast. It would also provide another $300-million for other major improvements, including a bus on King George in Surrey, a Highway 1 express bus for Langley commuters, and an extra SeaBus for the North Shore.

The proposal requires mayors to agree to the new two-cents-a-litre gas tax the province has offered, which would begin in April 2012. That generated public backlash when it was first proposed in July, prompting the mayors to demand that TransLink do another, more thorough round of public consultation. That is now under way.

But even more challenging, the plan requires the mayors to agree – with civic elections looming in November – to significantly increase property taxes in 2013. Those two new taxes would bring in about $70-million a year.

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The province has a memo of understanding with TransLink that promises it will look for alternative funding mechanisms before then, so that the new property tax would not actually be required. (But mayors need to legally approve a future property tax now so that TransLink has the guarantees in place to get long-term financing for the expansions starting next year.) In the past, both NDP and Liberal governments have backed away from mechanisms like vehicle levies and parking-stall taxes, frightened off by public reaction.

Even for those mayors supporting the plan, current service cuts at TransLink are undermining them. The chair of the TransLink mayors' council, Richard Walton, is aggressively championing the plan –while fielding calls from residents in his municipality about bus-service cuts that kicked in this month.

Because TransLink has no ability at the moment to add any capacity, it is adding service this fall on busy lines by taking it away from less-used ones, like three in Mr. Walton's district of North Vancouver.

The coalition is supporting three possibilities for a new provincial tax mechanism. First choice is the revenue from the province's carbon tax, available as of 2012.

That's something Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts has been championing.

"At the end of the day, nobody wants to pay more taxes, but is there an opportunity to redistribute," said Ms. Watts, who acknowledges everyone will have to work hard to find a fair, workable alternative in the next two years.

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The second choice the coalition favours is a vehicle-registration tax, said Mr. Ladner, but one that has some nuances to it, with lower fees for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.

The third is road pricing in some form: fees for people alone in their cars to use HOV lanes; tolls on every bridge; or some other mechanism that gets money from people who use the system more than others.

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