Transportation Minister Todd Stone is holding firm that the province won’t contribute as much money as Metro Vancouver mayors want for their $7.5-billion transit expansion plan.
And while he is prepared to approve a new TransLink tax subject to a spring referendum, he won’t sign off on the extra $300 million a year the mayors want, calling it unaffordable.
That leaves the mayors with a difficult choice – chop projects out of their vision and risk rupturing their consensus; extend the timeline from 10 to 15 years; or raise property taxes, which can be done without a referendum.
“One of the key principles to government is the challenge of affordability,” Stone said in an interview. “We want to do everything we possibly can to set this referendum up for success.”
He said there will be a new revenue source allowed by the province, conditional on referendum approval, but added it will have to be “far less than the $300 million they want.”
Metro mayors are meeting behind closed doors Friday ahead of another mayors’ council meeting Dec. 11, where the final decision is expected to be made on the transit referendum question and requested tax.
Stone would not say exactly how much in new tax money he would approve if not $300 million a year, but said mayors could raise property taxes to make up the gap.
“If they want to stick to their original plan they’ll have to make up the difference with existing levers, and the lever that affords them the most flexibility obviously is the property tax.”
He said it’s a “fair assumption” that the mayors will propose either a regional sales tax or a vehicle levy as the new revenue source after the province previously ruled out sharing its carbon tax and the creation of a new regional carbon tax appears problematic.
The mayors’ vision, concluded last June after whirlwind negotiations, assumes $1.6 billion each would come from the provincial and federal governments to help fund the package of improvements, including a Broadway subway, three light rail lines in Surrey, new B-Line express bus routes, more frequent Seabuses and a general 25 per cent lift in bus service.
Stone said he understands the mayors’ desire to put “a chicken in the pot for everyone” so each part of the region gets something.
But he said mayors should expect much less from senior governments over the 10 years.
“The $1.6 billion they have earmarked in their plan for capital contributions from the province is simply not going to happen,” he said. “They might be wiser to count on or ask for half that amount.”
The amount requested is far more than has been extended in the region in previous 10-year periods, he added.
Despite ongoing criticism of the referendum – Metro Vancouver’s board as recently as last week urged the province to reconsider it – Stone vowed the province will not change course.
“Our government is very proud to stand on the side of taxpayers here,” he said. “There will be no U-turn on this. There will be no going back and changing our minds.”
Stone was also pressed to respond to former transportation minister Kevin Falcon, who last month expressed concern about the referendum strategy, calling referenda a “cop-out” that allows politicians to avoid making and defending hard decisions.
“Mr. Falcon is certainly entitled to his opinion,” Stone said, adding the referendum was an election campaign promise that must be honoured.
He also insisted it has moved the process forward and broken a long-running log jam on efforts to finance expansion of TransLink by galvanizing mayors to forge their plan.
“Nobody thought that the mayors would be able to pull together and unite behind the plan. And they did,” he said. “I’m not certain would have or could have happened in absence of the referendum requirements.”
George Heyman, the NDP critic for TransLink, criticized Stone for continuing to put roadblocks in front of the mayors.
“You either put it to a vote of the people, in which case they get a say, or you sit down and negotiate the funding options that are going to be available yourself,” he said.
The costs of a failed or blocked referendum will be huge in terms of livability and the economy, Heyman said, adding he and other NDP MLAs will campaign in favour.
He also noted any further delay in building new rapid transit lines runs the risk of a significant increase in costs when interest rates begin to climb.
“Interest rates are at a record low but at some point borrowing costs are going to be higher,” Heyman said, noting business leaders have also said now is a good time to embark on major capital projects.
While Stone said he is committed to success in the referendum, Heyman noted the premier has previously said the province will stay neutral and let the mayors lead the campaign.
“The B.C. Liberals need to commit today to making sure their ill-conceived referendum succeeds, before both our economy and our region’s roads end up gridlocked.”