Metro Vancouver mayors have agreed to try to meet the province’s June 30 deadline to hammer out a 10-year priorized plan of transportation investments that may be the basis for a referendum on new TransLink taxes by mid-2015.
The regional mayors council agreed Friday to form an initial working group, chaired by Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore, to quickly work to develop the regional transportation vision and plan.
That group is aiming to report back to the mayors council by April 15.
The projects are expected to include broad bus service increases, rapid transit extensions in Vancouver and Surrey, and the replacement of the Pattullo Bridge.
The mayors also spelled out their expectations of the province in a Feb. 24 letter to Transportation Minister Todd Stone.
They insist the province concede that property tax hikes for TransLink be limited to the additional three per cent increases that the transportation authority is already authorized to raise each year without the mayors’ approval.
And they expect the new funding sources on the table to finance the plan would include a vehicle levy, regional sales tax, gas tax, carbon tax, road pricing and related bridge tolling, apart from already tolled provincial bridges.
Stone has said the province would be reluctant to give up future toll revenue from the bridges and highways it runs – which include the Port Mann Bridge and the Massey Tunnel, whose replacement might also be tolled – and would instead want to retain that money to maintain and replace those crossings.
He has also said the province still believes higher property taxes to TransLink are justifiable.
The minister told reporters Tuesday the province is willing to discuss all of the funding sources the mayors are seeking.
“There are no preconditions,” Stone said. “At this point we’re not ruling anything out.”
Critical to any deal with the province is a promised legislated reform of TransLink’s governance structure to give the mayors more control over spending priorities.
The mayors council wants the power to set both capital project priorities for TransLink and approve its annual operating budget. That’s much more power than the current model, where the unelected professional board controls all spending within the existing budget and must only get the mayors’ approval for significant new revenue increases to fund major expansions.
The letter to Stone also indicates the mayors would reject a referendum if it raises money for basic operating costs.
That raises the possibility that mayors might propose some funding sources dedicated to major capital projects that would be subject to referendum, but other sources for operating costs only – like a vehicle levy to improve or at least maintain bus service – that might not go to referendum.
Asked if the mayors are trying to reframe the province’s referendum more narrowly to apply only to major capital projects, mayors council vice-chair Wayne Wright of New Westminster said only that the mayors’ council remains formally opposed to a referendum.
Wright noted a vehicle levy would be the simplest new source to add and could fund urgent needs while major projects are designed and road pricing options are studied.
Moore said a new funding source may be needed to maintain existing TransLink service levels, which could otherwise be cut due to rising operating costs, if a referendum is for any reason pushed back to the next civic elections in 2018.
He said covering the rising costs for the service that now exists should not be put to a referendum because defeat means “you could take steps backward” and remove service.
“If the minister wants to run a referendum on expanding the transportation and transit system, that’s what we’re going to deliver for him – a plan for that.”
The province’s position is that any new revenue for TransLink that doesn’t come from property tax must go to referendum.
Moore said the hope is mayors and the province cut a deal that doesn’t trigger any further delay and a crisis on existing service.
Moore said while the mayors recognize the province is going to run a referendum, they have not signed on to lead it and whether they will rally behind depends on how Victoria responds.
“Our job is to put forward a plan and a funding strategy that they can take out to a referendum,” Moore said. “We have not bended or moved away from our position that a referendum is not a good idea.”