Opinion

Editorial — Here's some TransLink priorities

The finger-pointing over the plan to hold a referendum on TransLink spending and transportation priorities got a little ridiculous this week.

On Wednesday, the Mayors' Council said all Metro Vancouver mayors "unanimously" oppose the referendum. They forgot to count Delta Mayor Lois Jackson, who unabashedly supports it. They claim there is no time to put together a question and "educate" the public before the municipal election, which is 10 months away.

Other than Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, who proposed a question several weeks ago that called for reducing the gas tax while bringing in lower, universal tolls on bridges and a limit of a three per cent boost to TransLink property taxes each year, no mayor has even proposed an idea to be included in a referendum question. They'd rather be against the concept. They are used to making big capital spending decisions without letting the public have a say.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone then said on Thursday that the mayors needed to set some capital spending priorities and propose a question. He did say that the province will pay any additional costs caused by having the referendum in conjunction with the municipal elections.

Let's not forget that the referendum idea came from the premier during last year's election. Until Thursday, no one in the provincial government had said the mayors were to come up with the question. Everyone was assuming the province would word the referendum question, as it was Premier Christy Clark's idea.

Mayors seem fixated on not raising property taxes for TransLink, saying that they can't go up any more. That of course is because the property tax bill has their city's name on it, and thus they have to bear some responsibility for them. When they boost gas taxes, they don't have to face any blame.

While mayors' frustrations over their lack of input into TransLink spending decisions is understandable, they didn't do a noticeably better job of managing it when they actually did control the TransLink board. Projects such as the Canada Line became embroiled in both local and provincial politics — one reason then-minister of transportation Kevin Falcon opted for a new TransLink structure.

Most of TransLink's services (and dollars) go towards transit services in Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, Richmond and the North Shore. Other cities, most of which are growing faster than the above-named ones, are not getting much in the way of new service, with the notable exception of the Evergreen Line, being built to the Tri-Cities area.

In fact the cost of building that line is another reason that few new services are being offered. The cost of the 11-kilometre SkyTrain link was the prime reason that mayors agreed to boost the gas tax to 17 cents a litre three years ago.

Few people south of the Fraser, or in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows, are likely to back tax increases if there is little or no new service coming their way. Their frustration is magnified by the fact that they must pay tolls on TransLink's Golden Ears Bridge, or the province's Port Mann Bridge.

It seems unlikely that the disparate areas of the Metro region will agree on transit priorities, let alone on new methods for taxing people. Perhaps it's time to break TransLink up, and have the South Fraser region go it alone in setting its own transit priorities. Have all the TransLink revenue from that area go towards services for that area, and the South Fraser can make a contribution to services like SkyTrain that cross the river.

Despite what the mayors say, people are pretty clear about transportation priorities. They want to see fair tolling policies that do not unduly punish people in one part of the region. They want to see an expansion of bus services over the Port Mann Bridge, and better transit service to fast-growing areas like Willoughby. They want to see an expansion of rapid transit south of the Fraser.

They also would agree to transit expansion in other parts of the region, as long as those projects are not at the expense of fast-growing areas with little or no transit service.

In terms of paying for it, what's wrong with boosting property taxes? As provincial politicians point out, people in the Metro area do not pay hospital taxes any more — and other B.C. residents do. Why not do as Watts suggests — boost property taxes a little bit, reduce the gas tax, and bring in a universal toll on all major bridges, with a maximum rate of $1 for cars and $3 for large trucks?

With fairness as its guiding principle, such a proposal could gain support from a majority of voters — if the mayors and the province can stop pointing fingers, and start working together to ensure that long-term transportation issues are dealt with.

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