COLUMN: Mayors' transit plan needs funding source

Last 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 achievable.

The plan is the first concrete action from mayors outside the South Fraser region. They actually recognize there is a transit shortfall in the South Fraser region. It also calls for  upgrades to transit service in areas where it is already pretty good, such as Vancouver and Burnaby.

The biggest news in Surrey is funds for three separate LRT (at grade) rail lines. Lines on 104 Avenue from King George Boulevard to Guildford, and on King George as far south as Newton, are to be built within seven years. This will have an immediate effect on traffic congestion in North Surrey.

An LRT line from the SkyTrain at King George to Langley City is to be built within 12 years. In the meantime, a B-Line express bus service along Fraser Highway will be implemented. This is badly needed, as the buses are often filled to capacity before leaving Langley.

While driving along Fraser Highway in Fleetwood last Friday, I noticed 10 to 12 passengers waiting at most stops – far more than a bus that comes by every 15 minutes can accommodate.

Other bus routes in Surrey and Delta will see increased service, which are also long overdue. Overall, the plan calls for a 25 per cent increase in bus service and 400 new buses.

For far too long, the transit network has been focused on getting people to downtown Vancouver, while in reality there are destinations all across the region.

One thing that is missing is any mention of an express bus from Surrey across the Port Mann Bridge. A key promise made at the time the bridge was announced has not been fulfilled, and it appears there is no plan to fulfil it.

The Pattullo Bridge replacement is an interesting choice for the plan. It is costly, and it will only be four lanes, although it can be expanded to six lanes.

Most notably, it will be a toll bridge. That means that every single route from Surrey and Langley across the river will be subject to a relatively high toll. When the Massey Tunnel is replaced, there will be four toll crossings across the Fraser and just one free one – the Alex Fraser Bridge.

This is unacceptable.

And to its credit, the mayors recognized that. They acknowledge that the province needs to look at its tolling policy (which it is reviewing), and advocate for road pricing to replace uneven tolls.

The current tolling policy severely penalizes people who live south of the Fraser and travel regularly across the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges.

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.

They are prepared to reduce the gas tax to 11 cents per litre from 17 cents, but only after road pricing has been added – which is likely 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 was instant and dramatic. Many more people headed to the U.S. to buy gas, and often a great deal more.

Another 5.5 cent per litre tax will hurt, and likely kill off, many local businesses who are affected by cross-border competition. 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. As voter approval is required, it may mean a solid, forward-looking plan fails because of tax issues.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

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