The pros and cons of voting for a 0.5 per cent congestion improvement tax to improve transit and roads in the Metro Vancouver region were debated in depth Tuesday night, at the monthly Greater Langley Chamber of Commerce meeting.
The issue has been a divisive one for the chamber, which has bucked the trend of most business groups backing the tax. President Kristine Simpson said the board has “spent a considerable amount of time on the referendum issue,” and ultimately voted not to support the tax because of concerns about the loss of business in Langley to areas like Abbotsford and the United States, the level of improvements promised for Langley, and the possibility that Langley projects would be delayed or cancelled if others go over budget.
“We are focusing on informing members and helping to ensure that residents vote,” she said.
As part of that effort, Bill Tieleman of the Better Transit and Transportation Coalition, which backs the tax, and Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which opposes the tax, debated its merits and faults for close to an hour. The debate was at times personal, and kept the packed room at Cascades Convention Centre entertained.
Tieleman said the coalition is made up of 70 different groups ranging from the B.C. Chamber of Commerce to the David Suzuki Foundation.
“The referendum is not about the past or even the present. It’s about our future and our grandchildren’s future. It is not about TransLink. Its management or mismanagement is not on the ballot. It is a unique opportunity to vote on a plan to fix roads and buses.”
He said the region is poised to grow by one million people in the next 30 years, and the plan agreed to by the Mayors’ Council will ensure that 70 per cent of residents will have access to more frequent transit across the region.
Bateman said the main issue for the No side is that the money to be raised goes to TransLink, which has proven many times that it cannot manage taxpayers’ money well. He said he is not opposed to transit expansion, and as a Langley Township councillor, he had called for increased transit in the community.
“The list of waste at TransLink is legendary,” he said, saying 450 staffers make in excess of $100,000 and there are six different unaccountable boards, who conduct virtually all their business behind closed doors.
“As my unlikely ally (Burnaby Mayor) Derek Corrigan says, TransLink is a beast that eats money,” he said.
“For me, the first job is fixing TransLink,” he said.
Tieleman countered that TransLink may well need fixing, but that is up to the provincial government, which controls it. He suggested that people concerned about how it functions contact their MLAs and ask for changes.
“I’m happy to talk (to the province) about governance changes, and I’ll go with Jordan to Victoria to do so,” he said.
Bateman said the transit improvements being sought can be funded by local municipalities, if they agree to devote 0.5 per cent of the new money they receive from growth each year to regional transportation. He said the Pattullo Bridge will be replaced no matter what happens in the referendum, because it will be a toll bridge.
He also said that Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner has said the three LRT lines planned there, one of which is supposed to eventually extend to Langley City, will be built if the referendum fails, as she has said she has a “Plan B.”
Bateman decried the plan for its limited benefits for Langley. He said there is no plan to extend bus service to Gloucester Industrial Park, where there are thousands of jobs. The effect of the added tax on Aldergrove businesses right on the Metro Vancouver border will be devastating, and “they are shaking like a leaf.”
He also said past events show that Langley improvements are the first to be shelved when money runs out.
Tieleman countered Bateman’s arguments against the plans, saying he was suggesting “the mayors will fleece you rubes out here. What kind of attitude is that?”
He said most of the improvements planned for Langley, including two B-Line routes, will be “front end loaded” and will be seen early in the 10-year plan. He said Bateman’s opposition “is depriving little people of transit service.”
Mike Buda, executive director of the Mayors Council, said that improvements for Langley include new local bus routes, a B-Line from Langley City to SkyTrain in Surrey via Fraser Highway, and another to Coquitlam across the Golden Ears Bridge.
Service along Fraser Highway via the B-Line will cut travel time on the route by one-third, he said, and he said buses for it will be ordered right after the referendum passes (assuming it does).
The LRT line along Fraser Highway, to be extended to Langley at the end of the 10-year plan, will cut travel time by 25 minutes and will be “a linchpin for commercial development in Surrey and Langley.”
Buda said the plan also calls for improvements to 16 Avenue and Fraser Highway, additional funds for new grade separation at rail crossings and a “200 Street bridge,” which was later clarified to be widening of the 208 Street overpass over Highway 1 to four lanes.
Bateman said that the province has yet to say what goods and services will be subject to the 0.5 per cent tax, and added that the cost to bring in point of sale equipment to collect it will be up to $10,000 each for small businesses.
Tieleman said he agreed that the list of exemptions needed to be made public, and hopes it will be announced within a month.
Questions from chamber members ranged from concerns about TransLink management to a query as to how difficult it would be for Langley to leave TransLink and join Fraser Valley Regional District in setting up a separate transit system which would better serve Langley.
Both Langley mayors gave brief speeches as to why they backed the proposed tax and the transportation improvements.
Langley City Mayor Ted Schaffer said the five South Fraser mayors got together to come up with a list of their top priorities for the 10-year transit plan.
“We thought that this was the best plan for this side of the river,” he said.
“If we don’t do something now, nothing will happen for a long, long time. I believe (the plan) is the best option out there. There will be growth, and there can be benefits and a monetary gain for the business community.”
Langley Township Mayor Jack Froese said the South Fraser mayors got together to come up with a plan by consensus “because we wanted to make sure we were not forgotten.”
Froese said the Township will fight to ensure that planned improvements for Langley are delivered. He said that’s what council did when TransLink suggested that it could not afford to pay for the express bus service on the new Port Mann Bridge, the 555 which runs from the new Carvolth bus exchange.
Froese said the 0.5 per cent tax increase on goods and services was the “least offensive” option, and will ensure that tourists and visitors help pay for transit improvements as well.
“This is public consultation at its finest,” he said. “I encourage everyone to fill out a ballot, no matter what side you are on.”