Transit plan is ambitious, but extra 5.5 cent gas tax may mean it loses at referendum

Thursday’s announcement from the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation, outlining plans for a $7.5 billion transit and congestion relief capital plan, is ambitious, but it could be achieved.

The plan is the first concrete action from mayors to actually recognize the transit shortfall in the South Fraser region. At the same time, it calls for  upgrades to transit service in areas where it is already pretty good.

Specifically in Langley, the plan calls for construction of an at-grade LRT line from the end of SkyTrain at King George to Langley City, within 12 years. In the meantime, it calls for B-Line express bus service along Fraser Highway, which is badly needed, as the buses are often filled to capacity before leaving Langley. Express service along that route will move passengers more quickly, and will ensure that those at intermediate stops can get on the buses.

It recognizes (at last) that there is little to no transit service in Brookswood and Willoughby. People here can’t be asked to pay more for a service they don’t get.

Expansion of bus service to those two neighbourhoods is essential.

Overall, the plan calls for a 25 per cent increase in bus service and 400 new buses.

Also proposed is a B-Line bus from Langley City to Coquitlam Centre, which will be on the new Evergreen Line SkyTrain extension. This will make it easier for commuters who don’t travel to downtown Vancouver to use transit. This has been a key missing ingredient.

There will also be upgrades to the Willowbrook and Langley City bus exchanges. These too are badly needed.

The big challenge with this plan is how to get voters to agree with the mayors’ ideas of how to pay for it. They propose tapping into the provincial carbon tax, but that is a non-starter. Their backup plan is to add a new regional carbon tax of about 5.5 cents per litre to the cost of gas. At the same time, there would be no reductions in Port Mann or Golden Ears bridge tolls. In fact, they want to add a toll on a new Pattullo Bridge.

They are prepared to reduce the TransLink gas tax to 11 cents per litre from 17 cents, but only after road pricing has been added — which is likely at least eight years away.

So the price of gas would rise by 5.5 cents per litre soon, and (perhaps) be cut by six cents at some distant point, when that revenue is replaced by road pricing.

When TransLink boosted gas taxes by two cents to 17 cents per litre, to pay for the Evergreen Line, the effect here was instant and dramatic. People were leaving Langley in large numbers to buy gas in either Abbotsford or the U.S., and those going to the U.S. were buying much more than gas. Another 5.5 cent per litre tax will hurt, and likely kill off, many local businesses in Langley. This is particularly true when gas is already $1.52 per litre.

The mayors should take a good hard look at the carbon tax idea, and perhaps come up with some type of road pricing much sooner. For example, how about people who drive more paying a small surcharge on their car insurance?

The proposed carbon tax may be enough to lead voters to reject this plan, when it goes to referendum.

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