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Mayors seek carbon-tax revenue for public transit

Lower Mainland mayors are ready to give an early thumbs up to a plan that would increase TransLink’s budget by nearly 50 per cent – so long as the money comes from the province’s controversial carbon tax.

Members of TransLink’s Mayor’s Council on Regional Transportation have called a press conference for noon today, where it’s expected the mayors will wade into the highly-charged issue of who pays for the Lower Mainland’s transit network.

The mayors are expected to tentatively endorse a plan for cash-strapped TransLink to boost its yearly revenues by $450 million over its current $1-billion budget. But the mayors want new ideas like the provincial carbon tax and a proposed port container tax to pay for a chunk of it – rather than a smorgasbord of raised property taxes, fare hikes and proposed vehicle levies.

Carbon tax revenue currently goes towards tax reductions in B.C.’s effort to label the controversial fee as “revenue-neutral.”

Wednesday’s announcement will come amidst a provincial election campaign in which B.C.'s first-in-North-America carbon tax has been hotly debated.

“This does nothing towards moving Metro Vancouver residents from their cars towards public transportation,” a working proposal states. “… Applying the carbon tax revenue collected from the Metro region directly toward the broadening of transportation options will directly benefit the public.

“This approach will allow the Ministry to provide measurable benefit to any region paying the tax … the taxpayer will only see the point in a carbon tax if they have readily available low-cost alternatives to current fuel consumption – applying this tax, as an offset to current transportation needs is sound policy.”

City of Langley Mayor Peter Fassbender, one of 21 regional mayors that make up the council, said the mayors’ message to TransLink and the province would be clear.

“We don’t believe that the local property tax payer is the vehicle … to increase revenue,” Fassbender said. “That means we have to find some other sources.”

Municipal sources now make 65 per cent of TransLink funding, the mayors say, up from 53 per cent when the regional transit authority was first created in 1999.

At the same time, the provincial share of TransLink’s funding has dropped to 35 per cent, from 47 per cent, over the same time period.

The mayors say property taxes, meanwhile, have made up the bulk of the increases: Up to 28 per cent this year from 18 per cent a decade ago.

“The provincial government has over the last several years significantly reduced income taxes and sales taxes and is now forcing local governments to ‘claw’ these ‘lost’ public revenues back through the introduction of new or increased local fees and taxes,” the proposal states.

Delta Mayor Lois Jackson says TransLink must look beyond local taxpayers for new revenue.

“I think the majority of mayors right from the very beginning have been very concerned about transportation costs being borne by the local property tax,” Jackson said.

“I’m very concerned that we haven’t got the right combination [of funding sources],” Jackson said.

It’s estimated carbon tax funds could cover up to $300 million a year for the Metro Vancouver region.

The mayors’ proposal also includes discussions on other revenue sources, such as a “container tax” on the region’s ports, with the money raised going towards increasing road capacity.

“In principle, the capacity of [the region’s] road system could be increased using the revenues from such a tax, which would act to decrease congestion on the region’s roads that would act to reduce the travel time for container traffic within and through the region,” the proposal states.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson was unavailable for comment on the proposal Tuesday evening. A written statement provided by his office did not touch on the tax.

“We need bold investment in public transit across the region, both for the economy and our environment,” Robertson was quoted as saying. “I'm hopeful we'll get consensus from the Metro mayors on a plan that provides a long-term, sustainable funding model for public transit.”

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, the chair of the Mayors’ Council, declined comment before Wednesday’s announcement.

Either way, 2009 will be a pivotal year for beleaguered TransLink. Its private board of directors must submit its long-term plans – and how to pay for them – later this summer and the Mayors’ Council, in turn, must approve the plan by October.

At the moment, TransLink is plugging a $150-million yearly budget shortfall with reserve funds, money that’s expected to run out in 2011. It says the $450 million extra needed will cover the shortfall, plus TransLink’s share of B.C.’s transit plan announced by the province last year. Anything less, and TransLink warns services will be cut.

“Nobody wants to pay more and that’s a fact,” said Langley’s Fassbender. “The other reality is unless you have more to run the system we’re going to have to cut it back.

“Once the election is over, we’ll have to sit down with whoever the government is and negotiate.”

Irwin Loy reports for Vancouver 24 Hours.

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