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Polak undecided on proposed sales tax for TransLink

Transportation Minister Mary Polak and B.C. Business Council executive vice-president Jock Finlayson reacted Wednesday to the proposal for a regional sales tax for TransLink. - File
Transportation Minister Mary Polak and B.C. Business Council executive vice-president Jock Finlayson reacted Wednesday to the proposal for a regional sales tax for TransLink.
— image credit: File

Transportation Minister Mary Polak isn't ruling out the request of Metro Vancouver mayors to enable a regional sales tax to fund TransLink, saying more work would have to be done ahead of a decision.

Area mayors on Tuesday suggested adding an additional sales tax charged in the Metro region of 0.1 to 0.5 per cent, with each tenth of a point adding $50 million a year for the transit system.

"We're nowhere near a decision that says whether it's on or it's off," Polak said Wednesday. "There just isn't enough information yet."

Polak said mayors have made "good progress" in making the case for new funding sources for TransLink.

But she said she'd need greater detail, including how much new money in total mayors envision raising for TransLink and the timing of major rapid transit lines in Vancouver and through Surrey to White Rock and Langley.

"They're referencing Broadway corridor SkyTrain as well as the Surrey one," Polak said. "We need them to find consensus on what would come first."

Polak last fall spelled out the province's criteria for new TransLink funding to be considered – any new source must be affordable, regionally based and, critically, have public support.

"We all saw what happens when you try to implement a tax that the public has not been consulted about and the pbulic has not been engaged with prior to it being implemented," she said, referring to the imposition and withdrawal of the harmonized sales tax.

"We don't want to see that happen again."

Canadian Taxpayers Federation B.C. director Jordan Bateman said area residents can't afford to pay more in sales tax and TransLink should find more waste to cut instead.

"The mayors have shown just how tone deaf they are to the public's wishes when they come back and float the idea of increasing sales tax," Bateman said. "TransLink has a spending problem, not a revenue problem."

Sales tax would be just one potential new source, with road pricing, a vehicle levy, a share of carbon tax and land value capture near new rapid transit stations also on the table.

Road pricing could be implemented by 2016, the mayors suggest.

Bateman predicts road tolls or a vehicle levy will be just as unpopular.

"Enough fleecing drivers," he said.

Bateman said sales tax had not been previously proposed for TransLink, adding he suspects mayors are raising it to "distract attention from what they really want, which is the vehicle levy."

Although the regional mayors' council's Jan. 31 letter to TransLink supports a regional sales tax of 0.5 per cent – which could raise $250 million a year – council chair Richard Walton said he thinks a smaller 'RST' of 0.1 to 0.2 per cent more likely.

Bateman predicted even a small "toehold" into the sales tax would be disastrous because TransLink will keep coming back for more.

The BC Business Council doesn't have a position but would entertain the idea of raising sales tax for TransLink, said executive vice-president Jock Finlayson.

He said many U.S. cities have a small local sales tax added on top of the regular state sales tax for specific projects or services.

"For taxpayers, obviously, the lower the better," Finlayson said, when asked if a TransLink sales tax of less than 0.5 per cent would be more palatable.

"We do see a need for a more stable funding arrangement in place for TransLink which has really be struggling with a series of financial challenges," Finlayson said.

The business council is also open to considering a vehicle levy or comprehensive road pricing in the region, he added.

One possible challenge for the province, Finlayson said, is it might not be able to allow a regional sales tax for TransLink without making the same power available to other regions across the province.

"That's a big step for the province," he said.

The NDP plan for financing transit is to redirect carbon tax revenue that now goes to corporate tax relief under the province's revenue-neutral policy, effectively raising business taxes.

NDP transportation critic Harry Bains doesn't rule out a sales tax or other sources for TransLink, but says that would be a conversation with mayors if more money was needed and justified after the transfer of a share of the carbon tax.

"You need to square the need with what we will take to the table and then see if that's sufficient or if they need something more."

Bains applauded mayors for seeking a solution and urged Polak "not to waste" the opportunity.

"We need to compare not only today's needs for transit in the Lower Mainland  including the South of Fraser expansion, but also the next 30 years when we know we will have 1.2 million additional people moving in."

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