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Vancouver-area mayors race to avoid another delay to Evergreen Line

Metropolitan Vancouver mayors are scrambling to avert a threatened one-year delay in the saga of the region's most-delayed transit line in history.

Their reactions come in the wake of a surprise statement by the province's new Transportation Minister this week that he doesn't expect the line to be finished until 2015 because Metro Vancouver mayors haven't come up with a funding plan.

But there isn't a united approach among the mayors as they try to get the project started this year in order to see it finished by 2014, as planned.

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Port Moody Mayor Joe Trasolini is warning the B.C. Liberals that they'll face political reprisals if the province doesn't help find a solution to the long-standing funding impasse for the Evergreen Line, meant to serve the region's booming northeastern suburbs.

"I wouldn't want to be a government MLA seeking re-election in the northeast sector if there is a delay," said Mr. Trasolini.

However, the more conciliatory head of TransLink's council of mayors, Richard Walton, says he's sure a compromise can be reached in time to get construction going by this year and ensure completion by 2014, as originally planned.

And others mayors, like Peter Fassbender in Langley and Richard Stewart in Coquitlam, are warning fellow mayors that they – not the province – need to step up to the plate first by raising money from local property taxes for the initial phase if necessary.

The fragile truce between the region and the province on how to come up with $400-million locally for the line was shredded Monday when Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom said during legislative debates that he didn't expect the line to be completed until late 2015. He also blamed regional mayors for not coming up with a solution over the past six months.

That delay is bad news for the rest of the region, as other plans for major transit improvements in the south Fraser region and along Broadway in Vancouver are waiting in line behind the Evergreen.

"There's going to be no serious investment in transit anywhere in the region until this is resolved," said Vancouver Councillor Geoff Meggs.

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The latest setback has come after years of a long and troubled history for the line, which TransLink started planning in 2000.

It was delayed in order to fund the Canada Line, so that could be built in time for the Olympics. Since then, the region and province have deadlocked over how to fund the $1.4-billion Evergreen line. The province and the federal government each committed roughly $400-million and the region was supposed to come up with another $400-million.

The region's mayors said they couldn't keep raising property taxes and fares to come up with the money. Two years ago, they lobbied intensively to get the province to help put in a vehicle levy (by using the province's insurance corporation as a collecting agency), to allow new road-pricing tools like tolls or mileage charges, or to give the region some of the money collected from the carbon tax.

The province at first refused point blank, but partway through 2010, then-premier Gordon Campbell and the regional mayors signed a memorandum of understanding that appeared to indicate the province would move toward some of those other mechanisms.

On that basis, the province started the first stage of bidding for contractors interested in building the line. The bid request stipulated that the line would need to be in operation by the end of 2014.

However, at the end of December, the mayors refused to pass a supplementary budget with a property-tax hike to get that contract going, saying that they weren't prepared to do that unless the province made a rock-solid commitment to another source of money in future years.

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Since then, the province has been in upheaval as the B.C. Liberals chose a new leader and then saw outsider Christy Clark and her team take over the helm of government.

"We've been waiting for six months for them to get back to us," said Mr. Walton, also the mayor of North Vancouver district.

He believes that the region and province can work out a solution in short order, in spite of Mr. Lekstrom's remarks.

"Do I wish he hadn't said those things? Yes. Is it a setback? No."

But others say they fear that the line now has been irrevocably put back a year by the dithering over funding.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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