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Feds to step up on transit, now it’s B.C.’s turn

B.C. needs to find money to operate new transit infrastructure.

A SkyTrain curves along the east side of False Creek near Science World.

Jennifer Gauthier/Metro File

A SkyTrain curves along the east side of False Creek near Science World.

The federal government is expected to announce hundreds of millions of dollars for public transit in Metro Vancouver in Tuesday’s budget — which should be cause for celebration for long-suffering 99 B-Line commuters and drivers sick of congestion south of the Fraser alike.

Justin Trudeau said when he was on the campaign trail that the Broadway subway line, Surrey light rail and increased SeaBus service are all projects that could be funded under the new Liberal government.

But unless the province reverses its stance that voters must support any new transit tax in a referendum, TransLink will be stuck in the bizarre position of having the money to build these projects but no money to operate them.

That’s like me signing up to buy a new car without having the salary to pay for gas or insure it. It’s not financially savvy, and yet that is what TransLink — an organization already plagued by public relations problems — is going to be forced to do.

The provincial government has already rejected out of hand every request by Metro Vancouver mayors to approve simple funding solutions that can be implemented quickly, like a vehicle levy, a portion of the carbon tax, or an increase to the gas tax.

Then there was last year’s transit referendum fiasco, which asked Metro Vancouver voters to support a 0.5 per cent regional sales tax. The Yes side failed primarily because the timeline was too short. Metro Vancouver mayors were asked to drum up support for the tax in just a few months — a feat that took other cities with successful transit tax campaigns, such as Denver and Los Angeles, two to three years.

The only tax left that the mayors somewhat agree on is road pricing — which could take even longer. Road pricing uses an electronic system to read cars’ license plates, and sends owners a bill if they drive into the city centre during peak periods.

Stockholm, Sweden had a retroactive referendum on road pricing, in which the system was implemented for a year first, and then politicians let the voters decide afterward whether to scrap it. It passed retroactively, and approval ratings over the years escalated to 68 per cent, but from the time discussions started it took six years for road pricing to succeed in Stockholm.

Peter Fassbender, the Minister responsible for TransLink, says there’s plenty of time to figure out how to fund new operations, since the design and engineering work for the rapid transit lines is going to take two to three years.

“I’m not going to speculate on [how we will raise the operating costs], but there’s a number of ideas that are being floated by the mayors, and so what I think we need to do is take one step at a time,” he said on Friday.

That’s code for “not my problem, let the mayors figure it out” and this is the guy whose job it is to figure out how TransLink is funded and governed. Tell that to the commuters on Broadway, North America’s busiest bus transit corridor, or those in Surrey, whose options are so bad they have no choice but to own a car.

Or better yet, the B.C. Liberals could show some leadership and make the case publicly for a tax — any tax — that would allow these new transit lines to start running the day of their ribbon cutting ceremonies.

The federal Liberals have stepped up to meet the region’s increasing demand for transit. Now it’s B.C.’s turn.

Kate Webb is an unapologetic muckraker and political junkie who lives and writes in Vancouver.

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