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Municipal Elections 2022
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The Vancouver Road Tax Wars

Ken Sim says Kennedy Stewart will charge people to drive into the downtown. Stewart says Sim is misleading voters. We explain.

Kate Helmore 12 Oct 2022TheTyee.ca

Kate Helmore is a Tula Foundation Immersive Journalism fellow with The Tyee.

Will Kennedy Stewart levy a tax on every vehicle entering downtown if he’s re-elected as Vancouver mayor?

Rival Ken Sim and his A Better City team say he will. They claim Stewart wants a road tax that would charge $5 to $30 to drive into downtown, even for buses, delivery vans and ambulances. And they’ve hammered the message home on radio, TV and social media throughout the campaign.

But Stewart’s campaign has pushed back, saying he does not support the "inequitable" road tax and accusing Sim of “U.S.-style misinformation politics” and “a deliberate attempt to mislead the public.”

In response Sim doubled down, pointing out that during Stewart’s term as mayor, city staff drew up boundaries, hired three firms to assist with development and implementation and spent $1.5 million on studying the policy.

Sim is promising that on his first day in office he would stop all work and development on this road tax. “It will destroy our city and affordability,” he told The Tyee.

Who’s telling the truth?

Is a downtown road tax a done deal? Or a pretext for a phony political attack?

What’s a road tax and why is it being talked about in Vancouver?

In 2017, TransLink began studying mobility pricing — a road tax for people driving into downtown — for three reasons: mayors wanted more funds for big projects; they didn’t want to raise property taxes; and they wanted to reduce traffic congestion and encourage transit use. Charging people to drive into the downtown could address all three.

In 2018, its commission on mobility pricing submitted a report to TransLink’s Mayors' Council. The estimated cost to households ranged from $1,000 to $2,700 per year, based on the kind of system.

The idea went nowhere. Until 2020, when Vancouver’s Climate Emergency Action Plan came to council. A road tax was among 31 measures introduced as ways to help reach the city’s 2050 carbon reduction goals.

Six councillors voted in favour of the plan: Stewart, Green Party councillors Adriane Carr and Pete Fry, COPE’s Jean Swanson, OneCity’s Christine Boyle and Independent Coun. Rebecca Bligh, who is now running as part of Sim’s ABC party.

Staff were directed to do further study on mobility pricing for vehicles entering the metro core, an area that includes the downtown Vancouver peninsula and the Central Broadway corridor. Basically, the area north of 16th Avenue, west of Clark Drive and east of Arbutus Street.

They were directed to report back to council before the end of this year, with recommendations and next steps.

In November 2020, the city’s draft budget set aside $1.5 million over two years to plan the core mobility pricing scheme. The budget set aside $700,000 to create a project charter, hire a dedicated staff team and external consultant and begin an economic analysis and consultation with stakeholders. Another $800,000 was set aside for 2022 to complete “stakeholder engagement” and report back to council.

According to a May memo presented to the mayor and council, the first stage of the transport pricing project is underway.

The update said staff conducted 32 stakeholder interviews, six focus groups and drafted research reports analyzing travel patterns, technology, geographic boundaries and current practices in London and Stockholm.

The exploration phase isn’t finished. Council still wants to study the impacts mobility pricing would have on those with disabilities, those who drive for a living, on supply chains and the revenue the tax would raise.

Staff plan to provide a report to council in early 2023, which will include a proposed approach for stakeholder and public discussion through 2024.

Testing Sim’s claims

Some of Sim’s claims hold water. Council, and Stewart, did approve further research on mobility pricing. This research did cost $1.5 million and involved 30 public consultations.

But let’s take a closer look at Sim’s assertion that a mobility tax will happen if Stewart is elected.

In a memo released November 2021, staff broke the transport pricing project down into four phases: explore, develop, refine and implement. Each stage would require council approval — the exploration phase has already been approved — and the final stage, implementation, was not planned until 2026.

Staff are years away from implementation, and council will have to approve vote in favour at least three more times along the way.

Given that few councillors seem to have the appetite for this policy, Stewart included, that is unlikely.

“I have been clear that I do not support this tax,” said Stewart in a statement released Sept. 15. “It’s inequitable.”

There are also big questions about whether the city could pass a mobility tax. Taxation of moving vehicles is under provincial jurisdiction, and the BC NDP have been clear that they wouldn’t allow a road tax. The BC Liberals are even less likely to approve.

Sim has pointed to a 2021 memo by former city manager Sadhu Johnston. He said there could be ways that the city may be able to go ahead without provincial approval.

As an example, Johnston pointed out that while the city does not have jurisdiction over moving vehicles, it does over curbsides and could use parking fees to achieve the goals, or look at app-based ways to impose the pricing.

“There are ways that this type of arrangement can be done with the powers we have now,” Johnston said at the time. “That might not be the ideal way to do it, but that’s the kind of analysis we’d need to pursue.”

Johnston left the city in January 2021.

For a mobility tax to be implemented by Stewart in his next term, as Sim claims, then three things need to happen. Vancouver needs to elect a council who will vote in favour of the remaining three stages of the mobility pricing project. Stewart needs to reverse his public opposition. And the provincial government needs to change its position, or the city needs to find a way to get around provincial authority.

A combination of all three is not impossible. But it seems unlikely.  [Tyee]

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