Metro Vancouver politicians are vowing to take back direct control of the flow of federal gas tax money that for years has been automatically funnelled to TransLink.
The federal 10-cent-per-litre fuel tax collected by Ottawa – different from the 17 cents per litre TransLink levies directly – is returned to the region and used by TransLink, with the consent of Metro cities, mainly to buy new buses.
That flow of $120 million per year may now be cut off as a tactic to press the provincial government to agree to major reforms of TransLink.
With the B.C. Liberals back in power in Victoria and less willing than the NDP to bend to demands for reform, some local mayors see the gas tax fund as a lever to apply more pressure.
“It’s the only place where we have any control mechanism,” said Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan, one of the mayors seeking to regain control over the transportation authority and its spending priorities.
The federal gas tax agreement to return and disburse the funds is up for renegotiation and Metro has notified the province it wants direct control back.
When the original gas tax agreement was struck in 2005, TransLink was still run by mayors and councillors appointed through Metro, rather than the unelected board that has ruled TransLink since 2008.
“We should not be giving up one of the few chips we have,” Corrigan said. “We want to be able to control the funds.”
If TransLink was cut off from gas tax transfers, the money could instead go to Metro projects such as new sewage treatment plants, a new waste-to-energy plant or water infrastructure projects.
Those items are expected to cost taxpayers billions of dollars in the coming years.
Corrigan said the regional district’s board could still authorize disbursement of funds to TransLink on a project-by-project basis.
Delta Mayor Lois Jackson said she’s not sure if the money should be left in the hands of Metro Vancouver or TransLink.
“I’d like to keep the money in my own municipality,” Jackson said, voicing support for an alternate scenario of dividing up the gas tax funds between each local city.
Over the past seven years, the gas tax fund has financed the purchase of more than a thousand new buses or SkyTrain cars at a cost of $676 million.
It has also funded two SeaBus replacements and contributed money to the Compass smart card and faregate system as well as Evergreen Line construction and Expo Line SkyTrain station upgrades.
Over the next several years, TransLink proposes to use $768 million from the fund for another 500 conventional buses, 400 community shuttles, 620 HandyDarts, another SeaBus, refurbishment of 114 SkyTrain cars, construction of the new Hamilton transit centre, smart card readers on buses and another Expo Line upgrade.
Denying gas tax money for bus purchases could also put TransLink under more pressure to find new funding sources – also the focus of difficult negotiations between area mayors and the province.
TransLink officials say the gas tax transfers are only spent on projects that are part of a supplemental plan that has been proposed by the TransLink board and approved by the region’s mayors’ council. Project specifics must also be approved by the Union of B.C. Municipalities.
Mayors contend the supplemental plans crafted by TransLink’s board are take-it-or-leave-it packages that are difficult for them to reject without crippling the transit system. They want a line-item control over the projects contained in a supplemental plan.