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British Columbia Vancouver Mayors’ Council study says Yes vote will save money

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson wears a "Vote Yes" button on his jacket during a Mayors' Council transit tax referendum news conference, at Richmond-Brighouse Canada Line Station in Richmond, B.C., on Wednesday, February 25, 2015.

DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

A vote for the new transit tax will save the average family about $360 a year in 15 years once faster commutes and cheaper bills for costs such as gas and car maintenance are factored into the equation, according to a new study released by the council of Metro Vancouver mayors.

The report by HDR Consulting found an average Lower Mainland family would save about $360 by 2030 despite the roughly $165 a year in new taxes from the 0.5-per-cent increase in the PST. That same family stands to save an average of $1,100 a year by 2045 in transportation expenses and travel time if the new funding plan is approved in the upcoming plebiscite, according to the report.

HDR compared costs under the new plan versus a future with no new transit funding or "substantial new investments in transportation" in the region. The household's savings will come from lower overall costs for gas, transit fares and buying and maintaining cars, the analysis stated. The savings also take into account quicker commutes across the region for drivers, cyclists and transit users, the report stated.

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New Westminster Mayor Jonathan X. Coté acknowledged that it is difficult to convince people that a new tax will actually save them money in the long run, but said the alternative would be "penny wise but pound foolish because of all the importance of investing in our transportation system."

"Ultimately, as our region grows and congestion grows and, as people have fewer and fewer transportation options, it's going to hit us in the pocket book," Mr. Coté said in an interview Sunday. "That's the challenge that the mayors have over the next two to three weeks: try to get as much information for what's included in the mayors' plan and to really start to talk about the benefits."

With only two weeks to go before voting on the tax begins, Gordon Price, a former Vancouver city councillor and director of Simon Fraser University's City Program, said the Yes side is smart to focus on the savings that transit investment could bring the average person, but using theoretical benefits such as depreciation is a tough sell because such "externalities" are "twice removed from people."

"The most macro question of all is: Do you save more than you spend? And I think comfortably you can say that," Mr. Price said.

Lawrence Frank, a transportation, planning and public health professor at the University of British Columbia, said the methodology the HDR report used to determine such savings is sound and shows the benefits of the proposed plan, which would increase rapid bus service, add a subway line for Vancouver's Broadway corridor and a light rail transit for Surrey and Langley.

"[The transit system] is going to attract more riders and those people will save money," Prof. Frank said. "But overall household costs for those that are formerly drivers, for sure, they'll save a lot of money. And it gives them a savings in terms of health benefits because they're more likely to walk enough so that they don't develop chronic disease."

No side leader Jordan Bateman, a spokesman for the B.C. wing of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, dismissed the study, saying it doesn't account for opportunity costs and how people would spend money saved by avoiding a new transit tax.

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"The mayors are getting more and more desperate; they're relying on shakier and shakier economic cases and frankly on doomsday scenarios that simply won't come true even if people vote No," Mr. Bateman said Sunday. "The mayors are trying to buy Yes votes with their $8-million, taxpayer-funded war chest."

Last week, the mayors of Vancouver and Richmond dismissed a recent poll which suggested the No side was ahead on whether Lower Mainland residents should accept a sales tax to help raise $250-million a year for major transit and road improvements.

Mr. Bateman said that a No vote won't cause massive gridlock or a "carmageddon," but will instead force politicians to reform TransLink.

Prof. Frank cautioned that losing the opportunity to fund critical transit infrastructure was too heavy a price for people wanting better governance at the agency.

"That's ridiculous, we can fix TransLink without moving the investment," Prof. Frank said. "We need the infrastructure.

"It's going to take years before you get the ability to put a package together again."

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