Langley Township mayor Jack Froese thinks a majority of Metro Vancouver residents will vote for a sales tax increase to fund transit improvements while Langley City mayor Ted Schaffer thinks it will be a tough sell.
“I am optimistic that it will pass,” Froese told the Times Thursday after Metro Vancouver mayors, including Froese, voted 18-3 to hold a referendum on hiking the provincial sales tax within the region by 0.5 per cent to fund a $7.5-billion package of transit upgrades.
“I don’t think it’s going to be an easy yes vote,” Schaffer said.
It is the first Canadian referendum on transit funding.
Froese said cities in the states, like Seattle, have found voters will support a higher sales tax if it means better public transit.
Froese said the vote came down to three options; a carbon tax, a vehicle tax or the sales tax increase.
The carbon tax and vehicle tax would cost the average household about $230 a year, while the sales tax would cost about $125 which “comes out to the least impact to Langley residents” Froese said, adding it would also have even less impact on low-income residents.
A vehicle tax would be especially unfair to Langley residents, who have to rely on vehicles due to a lack of public transit in the area, Froese told The Times.
Approving the tax increase would immediately improve bus service and ultimately bring light rail transit to Langley, Froese predicted.
“It will get us more buses and more frequent buses,” Froese said.
“If we don’t do anything today, the alternative is gridlock and congestion,” Froese added.
Schaffer said the transit plan contains specific benefits for Metro residents who live south of the Fraser River because the mayors of Langley City, Langley Township, Surrey, Delta and White Rock, worked together as a council of five to make sure their issues were recognized.
That’s why the plan includes a beefed-up express bus service and more rapid transit trains on this side of the river, Schaffer said.
While he expects resistance to a tax increase, Schaffer said he’s hoping voters will take a long view.
“I’m hoping people could see beyond today and tomorrow,” Schaffer said.
“It’s a costly vision, but this is a 30-year vision,” Schaffer added.
The rise in the regional sales tax would raise an estimated $250 million in new revenue per year.
The proposed referendum question asks: “Do you support a half percentage point (0.5%) increase to the Provincial Sales Tax in Metro Vancouver, dedicated to the Mayors’ Transportation and Transit Plan, with independent audits and public reporting?” (Yes or No)
The question and tax increase proposal must still be approved by the provincial cabinet.
It would take place as a mail-in ballot over six weeks beginning in late March, with a final voting deadline of mid-April.
Transportation Minister Todd Stone recently warned the provincial and federal governments are unlikely to contribute the $3.1 billion in capital grants the mayors expect.
A coalition of business, environment and labour groups dubbed the Better Transit and Transportation Coalition will campaign for the Yes side.
The group includes the Vancouver Board of Trade, Unifor Local 111, Tourism Vancouver, Downtown Surrey Business Improvement Association, David Suzuki Foundation, Greater Vancouver Gateway Council and the B.C. Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s critical that we breathe new life into our transportation network,” said Vancouver Board of Trade CEO Iain Black. “For years, chronic congestion has stifled the movement of goods and people, suffocating our regional economy.”
HandyDart Riders Alliance spokesman Tim Louis said a planned 30 per cent boost in HandyDart service hours over 10 years would be “a step towards releasing people with disabilities from the virtual house arrest” that they’ve faced under an extended service freeze.
Opponents of new TransLink taxes are also mobilizing, with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation B.C. director Jordan Bateman vowing to fight the tax hike.
He said a key area of uncertainty in the plan is its reliance on senior government contributions that may not materialize, or that may come at a cost of grants for other major projects, like sewer upgrades.
– with files from Jeff Nagel, Black Press