Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore and Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts.

Cities want answers before vote to kill TransLink tax hike

Mayors split on decision that could slash Metro Vancouver transit service

Metro Vancouver mayors are demanding to know what transit services TransLink will slash from its new plan if they cancel a temporary property tax increase and derail a promised launch of the Highway 1 Rapid Bus service.

Mayors may vote as early as Oct. 18 on whether to cancel the tax hike, which would add an extra $23 to the average Metro home’s bill in 2013 and 2014, generating $30 million TransLink says is needed for various transit upgrades, including the new Port Mann rapid buses and a new B-Line express route in Surrey.

Local cities oppose heavier reliance on property tax for TransLink but last year okayed the temporary property tax on the expectation the province would quickly grant a new source like a vehicle levy to replace it.

Now with a new chance to unravel it after being spurned by Victoria, Metro leaders are split.

Some South of Fraser mayors now hope the tax hike stays in order to get the new bus service, others insist it’s time to quash it and draw a firm line in the sand with Victoria and still others are waiting for more information.

“I want to know what’s going to be cut,” Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore said Wednesday after mayors grilled TransLink officials on the plan, which already scales back previous promises.

“If I agree to withdrawing the $30 million a year does that mean every bus service in my community gets reduced? What are the ramifications of that?”

TransLink so far won’t say what would be on the chopping block.

A provincial audit will soon report and there are hopes it could uncover more savings and lessen the blow if mayors do opt to withdraw the tax hike.

Even if the tax hike survives, Moore noted it will be unwound after 2014, sparking potentially severe service cuts then, if the province fails to deliver new funding streams in the meantime.

“We’ve given them a clear message it won’t be supported after the two years.”

Moore said TransLink seems to be doing a good job of finding savings internally, but added cities aren’t happy with shifts to bus service that reduce the frequency of  some routes.

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts said TransLink’s funding system is unsustainable and the province has so far blocked the mayors’ efforts to find a solution.

“There’s a huge level of frustration that we’re still in this box,” she said.

Watts said the region should move to a system of “road pricing and equitable tolling” that caps the use of property tax, reduces the 17-cent-a-litre gas tax within Metro and eliminates the need to add a vehicle levy.

Delta Mayor Lois Jackson vowed to vote again to rescind the property tax increase – mayors tried to kill it once already in the spring but the vote was deemed invalid – citing insufficient service in Delta for what her residents pay.

“The eastern sector got the Golden Ears Bridge, then they got the Port Mann, now they’re getting a fast bus that goes every 10 minutes,” she said.

Jackson also questioned how TransLink could end up short $472 million over the next three years from what it previously forecast.

“Who is driving the bus on these projections?” she asked. “We’re talking almost half a billion dollars. That’s a big mistake.”

Some of the revenue drop comes from gas tax and less fares than expected, but TransLink is also shelving a $150 million real estate sale to a more opportune time.

Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender, the mayors’ council vice-chair, urged his counterparts to think regionally, not parochially.

“A lot of the mayors around the table have been prepared to make tough decisions in the best interest of the whole region not just because it’s good for their community,” he said. “I hope we continue to strive to do that.”