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A few years ago, TransLink undertook a major public consultation project to get feedback on the transportation authority's plans for the future. It also wanted to know what options to finance its utopian dreams were most popular with the people.

The results are noteworthy in light of the B.C. government's plans to hold a referendum next year to determine the people's appetite for coughing up their hard-earned cash to pay for transit expansion in Greater Vancouver. They also underscore the dilemma facing provincial and civic governments elsewhere in the country, where broad public support for transit expansion is easier to obtain than consensus on the mechanisms to fund it.

Back in 2010, TransLink was seeking input on its 10-year transportation and fiscal plan, the first pillar in its grand Transport 2040 strategy. That document outlines a far-reaching vision for reducing greenhouse gas emissions while increasing transit and getting more people walking and cycling. It is also a stratagem that would cost billions.

Nearly 3,000 people attended dozens of presentations that TransLink held over five months to explain its proposal, according to a final report of the public consultation recently obtained by The Globe and Mail. Thousands more took part in online consultations.

TransLink sought reaction to three scenarios: The first was not putting any new money into transit, an alternative that would lead to drastic service cuts. The second option was to maintain what already existed, requiring $260-million in additional annual revenue. And the final choice was to fund the goals in Transport 2040, which entailed finding $450-million in additional money each year.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the public overwhelmingly supported the third possibility, giving it top priority in online forums, blogs, and on Twitter and TransLink's website. Participants gave precedence to expanded rapid transit over building more roads and bridges and investing more heavily in traditional forms of transit such as buses.

So far, so good.

TransLink then set out to find agreement on a revenue source for the additional $450-million a year needed to underwrite the initial phase of the Transport 2040 plan. That, as it turned out, was much more elusive.

Participants in the consultation process were given options including transit fares, fuel, parking or property taxes and a proposed transportation improvement fee. Other choices included road and carbon pricing. Tolls on freight traffic moving throughout the region were also suggested.

Guess what? No clear winner emerged. In fact, opinion was quite scattered.

Some preferred increasing transit fares, while others worried that any hike in costs might reduce ridership. A healthy number liked the idea of increasing the fuel tax by three cents a litre, while those living south of the Fraser River felt that was not appropriate because they did not have the same access to rapid transit as others.

While one contingent was solidly behind the idea of a parking sales tax, others called it discriminatory because some parts of the region do not have as much paid parking as others. Some preferred continuing to use property taxes to fund transit, while many were opposed because it was not seen as likely to influence transportation behaviour in the way other measures would.

While there was no unanimity around one funding alternative, carbon pricing and road user fees emerged as the top two options. These were preferred, it seems, because people felt a user-pay model was the most effective way of transforming a person's commuting habits.

If nothing else, TransLink's public consultation should give the B.C. government some idea of what it is up against in the referendum to which it is committed. Nothing much has changed on the transit landscape in Greater Vancouver since the report was commissioned. The central issues remain the same, as do the options to bankroll any expansion.

The trick will not be getting people to say that they want new subways and rapid transit lines. It will be getting a majority to agree on a way to pay for them.

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