The province's reluctance to allow comprehensive road and bridge tolling may spur Metro Vancouver mayors to instead pursue a speedier referendum just on a vehicle levy.
The mayors met Transportation Minister Todd Stone Friday and emerged without any deal but predicted a flurry of further talks in the weeks ahead to negotiate new funding sources for TransLink expansion.
Mayors' council chair Richard Walton said mayors still hope to persuade the government to back tools like road pricing, a regional sales tax or a share of carbon tax.
But if a vehicle levy is all the province will allow, he said, there's no sense in delaying a referendum until mid-2015 – as Stone has offered.
"If ultimately it comes down to going to referendum on a vehicle levy, we could virtually have it this fall," Walton said.
He said a single source that generates relatively little money would force the mayors' council to use the new revenue strictly to put more buses on the road and shelve efforts to build new rapid transit lines in Surrey and Vancouver.
"It depends on how many funding sources the province allows. If it's fairly minimal, the only thing you can do is go for your first priority, which is buses."
An annual fee on each registered vehicle in Metro would be simple and easy to apply, unlike a complex road pricing system that would take years of study.
Stone wants mayors to hammer out a transit expansion priority list and the tax tools to fund it by the end of June.
The minister said he does not rule out road pricing as a tool if the mayors want to discuss it.
But Stone said it's the province's current position that any future tolls generated by provincial bridges and highways – such as the North Shore bridges, the Alex Fraser and the Massey Tunnel – should be reserved for their maintenance and replacement and not be diverted to TransLink.
"If the mayors want to have a conversation with me about a regional road pricing policy, I'm prepared to have that discussion with them," Stone said. "I've also made clear that up to this point our position is that we're going to be pretty protective as a province of the revenues generated from provincial assets."
Revenue from Port Mann Bridge tolls is needed to pay off that project's debt, he noted.
Stone emphasized any new taxes or tolls proposed for TransLink must be affordable, have minimal impact on the regional economy and draw strictly from Metro Vancouver, not the rest of the province.
Walton said it would be "virtually impossible" to develop a workable road pricing system in the region if provincial bridges and highways are excluded, leaving only the TransLink-controlled ones – the Golden Ears, Knight Street and Pattullo bridges.
Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts said she believes a road pricing system can be designed that shares the revenue and meets the goals of both the province and TransLink.
She said the province's proposals to the mayors aren't perfect but leave room for negotiation.
"I'm going to take this as an opportunity to really move forward," Watts said. "We've been stuck in this hamster wheel for far too long."
Walton was cautiously optimistic that Stone's promised governance reforms to TransLink will return enough power to elected mayors for them to sign on to Stone's referendum strategy.
Stone promised amendments to TransLink legislation will be introduced in the legislature this session.
The minister also addressed a sore point for the mayors, backtracking from past comments that they're divided on what should be built.
"The mayors have demonstrated over the years that they actually can come to agreement on priorities in the region," Stone said, citing their decisions to proceed with the Canada Line and to raise the gas tax to build the Evergreen Line.
"I have all the confidence in the world that there is the will there – not necessarily from every mayor but from the vast majority of the mayors – to move forward with this."
The mayors also were assured that Surrey's proposed light rail network would qualify for the province's promise to fund a third of major new rapid transit lines, as well as the Pattullo Bridge replacement.