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Bigger surplus may solve short-term budget crunch for TransLink

TranLink may not face a $30-million shortfall after all if regional mayors rescind a scheduled property tax hike.

Independent TranLink Commissioner Martin Crilly now estimates TransLink has $25 to $35 million more available to it than the tranportation authority disclosed in its 2013 base plan because it has underestimated the revenue it will pull in and overestimated the expenses.

"The expenditure esitmates, in our view, are a little heavy," Crilly told mayors in a briefing Wednesday, adding it wasn't clear if that was "by omission or by an abundance of caution" on TransLink's part.

He said the extra money could equate to a four to six per cent increase in bus service.

Mayors had vowed this fall to cancel the $23 per average home property tax hike if the province failed to deliver new funding sources before March, chopping $30 million in each of the next two year and precipitating what was then assumed to be a new revenue crisis that might force deep transit service cuts.

Now mayors and TransLink officials are hopeful the tax hike won't be needed for 2013.

TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis disputes Crilly's findings, however, noting there's no provision yet in TransLink's plan for a negotiated pay hike for unionized workers, and he suggested the commissioner's estimates may be too optimistic in other areas.

"We are not going to put services out that people rely on and make life decisions around on the premise that we may have to pull them back," Jarvis said.

The disclosure came Wednesday after mayors also met Transportation Minister Mary Polak behind closed doors, where she spelled out the province's position on how it might approve new sources of revenue for TransLink.

More money for the long term is needed to build new rapid transit lines in Surrey and Vancouver and generally expand transit service.

Polak said the government insists the mayors clearly spell out the money they seek to raise, how they would raise it, what it will go to fund and that they demonstrate public backing.

Mary Polak

Transportation Minister Mary Polak speaks after meeting with Metro Vancouver mayors Wednesday.

"I need to see that there is public support for that change," she said. "The mayors need to put together what is their consensus on the priorities for the region."

Polak said the mayors' desire to pursue comprehensive road pricing – where small tolls are charged on roads across the region – would take at least four to five years to implement and would require the highest degree of public buy-in.

Even a simpler scenario like imposing an annual vehicle levy could not go ahead if it's not affordable or if it has a negative impact on the regional economy, she said.

Mayors' council chair Richard Walton said he didn't expect a breakthrough in the first discussion with Polak on funding reform, but added Victoria's apparent reluctance to grant new sources suggests "there's going to be some tension."

The premier previously rebuffed the mayors' demands for new revenue last spring, saying they'd have to wait until an audit was finished. It failed to solve TransLink's financial bind and mayors say they seem no closer to a solution.

"It gets a bit frustrating," said New Westminster Mayor Wayne Wright, who took over as mayors' council vice-chair, defeating Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender.

"We're still moving at a snail's pace."

Fassbender had worked closely with the BC Liberals but Wright said he could offer a more neutral perspective, from a city in the centre of the region that's already fully served by SkyTrain and not seeking a new line.

Walton, mayor of North Vancouver District, was returned as chair by acclamation.

He said TransLink needs more money not to maintain its existing level of service but to keep pace with growth as more people arrive in the region and expect usable transit.

"In this region, you can't deliver additional public transportation without subsidizing 60 cents on every single ride you create," Walton said. "Sixty cents has to come from somewhere other than the fare box. That's the way it is."

Demands on TransLink include Vancouver's push for a $2.8-billion SkyTrain line on the Broadway corridor and Surrey's aim for rapid transit to Langley and White Rock.

Walton said he believes Surrey and Vancouver will work well together to help determine the timing of the two lines and avoid a feud over which one gets priority.

Crilly's term as TransLink commissioner is ending and area mayors appointed Bob Irwin as his replacement effective May 1.

Irwin is Crilly's senior advisor at the commission and is a former CEO of BC Transit.

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