Metro Vancouver mayors are bracing for a new clash later this fall over whether to sacrifice planned transit expansions in Surrey and Langley in order to avoid a TransLink property tax increase set for next year.
Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender said he would be “very, very surprised” if a nearly complete provincial audit of TransLink finds enough savings to plug all of the funding gaps facing the cash-strapped system.
TransLink froze several projects in April, including a new Highway 1 rapid bus service from Langley over the new Port Mann Bridge and a new B-Line express bus down King George Boulevard in Surrey, after mayors voted to scrap a $30 million property tax hike for the next two years.
But that vote wasn’t legally binding, so a new one would have to take place on a formal TransLink supplement this fall that could rescind the tax hike and potentially make further cuts.
Only a huge raft of savings uncovered by auditors and TransLink’s internal belt-tightening efforts would allow the region to proceed with the express bus projects and avoid the higher tax.
“We don’t have to find just $30 million,” Fassbender said. “We have to find close to $75 million. The reason is the gas tax is down significantly.”
TransLink estimates its fuel tax take from the 15 cents per litre it collects within Metro Vancouver will bring in $120 million less over the next three years than it has counted on in its Moving Forward plan.
It’s not clear why less fuel is being bought in the region, but out-of-region buying, possibly amplified by cross-border shopping, is thought to be one factor.
Fassbender said he fears actual service cuts – never mind the expansions – are a real possibility for TransLink if the property tax hike is repealed.
He said he will vote against such a supplement and lobby other mayors to defeat the measure, proceed with the tax hike and hopefully launch the new bus routes.
“Myself and other mayors south of the Fraser will be fighting hard to keep the property tax for the next two years, ” he said.
The TransLink mayors’ council never intended that the tax hike go ahead when it was approved a year ago – it was merely to be a backup in case negotiations with the province on new funding sources, such as a vehicle levy, collapsed.
But confidence of a new deal turned out misplaced as the province this spring refused to consider new sources until a full audit is complete.
Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom has said he remains optimistic the Highway 1 express bus will be in place when the new Port Mann Bridge opens.
“It would be ludicrous to suggest the millions of dollars that have been spent to provide the infrastructure for rapid buses wouldn’t be used,” Fassbender said.
Mayors Council chair Richard Walton, mayor of the North Vancouver District, acknowledged the divisions that have opened between cities over the issue.
“Obviously there are differing regional priorities and tensions,” he said.
The property tax hike would add $23 to the tax bill for the average Metro home.
Meanwhile, Walton said mayors will also be looking at what new TransLink governance model they should support.
The province offered a modest change to the existing board that would add two directors – the mayors’ council chair and vice-chair – but keep majority control with the remaining unelected directors. Mayors quickly rejected that proposal.
Walton said most mayors now appear to support a complete return to the previous TransLink model, where elected mayors and councillors were appointed by the Metro Vancouver board.
But he said TransLink is pulling together research on possible alternatives.
“There may be some hybrid models that have been successful that we can learn from.”
It’s hoped the mayors can agree on a preferred option that they would then propose to whichever new government takes power after next May’s provincial election.
Walton said he doesn’t see any chance of the province agreeing to deeper reform at TransLink before the election.