A yearly levy on each vehicle registered in Metro Vancouver is once again being pursued by area mayors as a short-term solution to TransLink’s financial challenges.
A car levy has been on the books as a legal option since TransLink was formed but the province has blocked its actual use three times – once when the NDP was still in power in 2001 and twice more in the past four years under the BC Liberals.
Now mayors – increasingly frustrated with Victoria and insistent that fares, gas taxes and property taxes can’t be raised any higher – will try again.
“There’s only one thing not tapped out and that’s the vehicle levy,” said Belcarra Mayor Ralph Drew.
“We have no other logical place to go,” said Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan, who estimates TransLink is short about $150 to $175 million a year to sustain current service levels, let alone find billions more for projects like new rapid transit lines in Surrey and Vancouver.
“It’s the most easily implemented short-term option people can discern to get through the problems that we’ve got.”
Mayors emerged from a closed-door meeting Friday proclaiming their unity on key issues and their determination to press the provincial political parties to commit to a solution ahead of the May 15 provincial election.
The TransLink mayors’ council intends to spell out its position in a discussion paper within two weeks and press both the government and opposition parties to respond.
Drew chastised Transportation Minister Mary Polak for late last year directing mayors to first come up with a vision for future spending before new controversial funding sources might be considered.
“The vision’s well laid out,” he said, adding all mayors feel Polak’s aim was to “rag the puck until after the election.”
The province has long preferred to see TransLink make more use of property tax instead of any source that might anger drivers.
Drew noted TransLink is automatically permitted to raise an extra three per cent each year from property taxes, which average $230 per Metro home.
“We’ve already made a significant, ongoing, compounding commitment via property tax dollars.”
Mayors also remain committed to exploring road pricing as a long-term source.
“We don’t know what that will look like,” Corrigan said. “Whether it’s congestion taxes in the downtown or additional tolls on bridges or road tolls. We don’t know what’s going to make logical sense yet, but we need some sustainable long-term source.”
Road pricing is seen as a mechanism that is at least tied to transportation and that could help control congestion and encourage motorists to try alternatives to driving.
It’s also held up by some mayors as a necessary discussion now that tolls on the Port Mann Bridge are causing some drivers to divert to free crossings.
Corrigan said a share of the carbon tax – as proposed by the NDP – is another option, or perhaps the next government may make an altogether different source available.
Both Corrigan and Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender – frequent adversaries on opposite ends of the political spectrum – called it a productive meeting with strong agreement on the strategy.
“We need to keep the pressure on ourselves and the government and the opposition parties moving into the election campaign,” Fassbender said.
One precondition for any new deal with the province, both Fassbender and Corrigan said, is that it come with governance reform of TransLink that puts mayors back in charge of setting spending priorities, not just signing off on contentious tax hikes.
“We have very little to say in the governnace of TransLink and yet were told to go find funding options,” Pitt Meadows Mayor Deb Walters said. “Anytime we come up with options they get shot down. It’s extremely frustrating.”
A vehicle levy was last proposed – and shot down – in 2009.
It would have raised $150 million a year by charging an average of $120 per vehicle.
“You need to look at something you can implement quickly,” Fassbender said. “To me some sort of a vehicle charge starts to fall into that category.”
It could be replaced once a long-term source like road pricing arrives, he added.