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Mayors kick off quest for ways to fund transportation system Add to ...

Metro Vancouver mayors will Wednesday officially kick off their struggle to find ways to pay for a 50-per-cent increase to the region's transportation system over the next decade.

And their message to the province is going to be: You said you wanted a transportation system that reduces greenhouse gas and you promised new rapid transit here, there and everywhere. Now you need to give us the power to pay for it with vehicle levies, road pricing, and some of your carbon-tax revenue.

"We need to have other funding options if we're going to have this fully built-out system," said Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, head of TransLinks Mayor's Council, which is meeting with TransLink's appointed board this morning for the first round of discussions about the options. "It will cost us $450-million to do what the province announced last January. We need to sit down and look at good public policy to pay for that."

Ms. Watts predicted the region would face serious problems if it didn't find a solution to what has been a revenue problem since TransLink was created 10 years ago.

"If you have a million people moving into the region and the infrastructure's not there, it's going to be a real mess."

That message is being echoed by other mayors, from Gregor Robertson in Vancouver, to Port Moody's Joe Trasolini, Richmond's Malcolm Brodie and Langley City's Peter Fassbender, who say the province needs to come to the table.

"What doesn't square right now is that the provincial government legislated greenhouse-gas-reduction targets and they announced a $14-billion capital plan for transportation and now that we're at the nitty-gritty of how to fund those two commitments, we're not seeing a solid dialogue with them about how we do it," Mr. Robertson said.

Mr. Trasolini, who has been publicly crusading to get the Evergreen rapid-transit line in the northeast sector for years, said he wants the line, but he sees the dilemma for TransLink. "It's an impasse here. You can't commit to monies you don't have."

Mr. Trasolini said he's been told by TransLink's CEO that the agency couldn't even borrow the $400-million for the Evergreen line, since it's clear to any lender that it has no way of paying it back.

The mayors' council legally has until Oct. 31 to approve a plan for the next decade. Today's meeting has prompted a week-long behind-the-scenes scramble both locally and in Victoria, as politicians at both levels jockey to find an acceptable political solution.

According to several sources, provincial politicians have been pressuring local councils to approve the $450-million-a-year improvement, but pay for it through property taxes. Local mayors have been adamant in saying that's a no go.

The mayors are trying to find a way for the province to back down gracefully from its election-campaign refusal to let carbon-tax revenue be used to pay for transportation improvements. One option being floated is to have the second phase of the carbon tax, coming up in 2013, committed to transit.

But at the moment, the mayors say they have only three options. They can cut service to fit the existing budget, which would mean going back to what some have described as 1970s-level transit levels.

The budget is currently about $1-billion, but TransLink committed to many expansions in the past few years.

It's now using reserves to pay for those service expansions, but those reserves will run out in 2011.

The agency can raise $250-million a year from increased property taxes, fuel tax, parking-lot tax and a new "transportation-improvement fee" to cover that shortfall and maintain all the new parts of the system that will be in place by 2011.

Or it can approve the $450-million-a-year new system if the province is willing to allow new funding options, like road pricing - anything from tolls to special fees for single drivers in HOV lanes - or part of the province's carbon tax.

The province's new Transportation Minister, Shirley Bond, has been sending public signals that the province isn't willing to consider any of those, and that TransLink has all the money levers it needs.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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