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Better transit, better province: mayors' council

Good transit in the Lower Mainland helps the economy of the whole province.

That's the argument Vancouver-area mayors are going to make next week in an effort to get more help from the province to pay for the region's latest mega-transit project, the Evergreen Line.

"If we have a robust, integrated solution for the Lower Mainland, the economic growth that will allow will benefit the entire province," said TransLink mayors' council chief and Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender, as he prepared to head into a meeting Monday with B.C. Transportation Minister Shirley Bond.

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"Everybody focuses on rapid transit as though it's only for the Metro Vancouver user and we've got to shift that paradigm."

But the Transportation Minister is ready and waiting with her counterargument.

"We certainly recognize that investments in the Lower Mainland make a difference. But the taxpayers of B.C. have already invested $400-million in the Evergreen Line. We have to look at what's fair and equitable in who pays for the rest," Ms. Bond said.

The minister noted many northern communities are waiting for highway and bridge projects, while the Lower Mainland has benefited from investments in the Canada Line, the Sea to Sky Highway, and the current Gateway construction project.

Ms. Bond also hinted yesterday that the province would introduce legislation in the current session to resolve the issue of how to pay for the $1.2-billion Evergreen Line.

"We're looking at both governance and other things to close the gap. If legislation is required to deal with any of this, it would have to be tabled in this session."

The province has committed $400-million and the federal government has committed $420-million for the line. But in TransLink's controversial 10-year budget plan last year, mayors declined to raise property taxes or introduce a vehicle fee to come up with the remaining $400-million.

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Their concern at the time was the difficult political sell in asking taxpayers throughout the region to accept higher fees for a line that would benefit only a part of the region.

Instead, they proposed a much richer package of transit improvements for the whole region, which couldn't be paid for without the province approving new kinds of fees and taxes on top of the existing ones. When the province wouldn't allow that, the mayors passed a plan with no funding for the Evergreen Line.

Now, Ms. Bond is saying that Metro Vancouver mayors should apply the same equity arguments to their region that they're asking from B.C.

"If you're going to invest in the Evergreen Line, it benefits the whole Lower Mainland."

Ms. Bond refused to confirm whether the province is looking at imposing a property tax or a vehicle levy unilaterally.

The struggles over funding bigger transit projects in the Lower Mainland has been a political burr ever since TransLink, an agency that manages all roads and transit for the region, was created in 1999.

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When the Expo and Millennium lines were built (opened respectively in 1985 and 2002), the provincial government paid all the construction costs. It wasn't until the Canada Line was being planned that the TransLink - and regional taxpayers - were asked to contribute to the construction of a major line.

TransLink contributed $334-million and is also required to make regular repayments to the private partner that built and is operating the line for the first 10 years.

Lower Mainland mayors have been reluctant to keep raising property taxes to pay for the region's share of transit projects, saying that it hurts economic growth in the region and targets the wrong people.

"Right now, the mayors' position is that the property tax is a big challenge for us," Mr. Fassbender said. "Road tolling and some of the other potential options are better because they actually become incentives for getting people out of their cars."

But apparent differences aside, Mr. Fassbender and Ms. Bond insist they are having ongoing, constructive conversations on how to resolve the issue.

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