The debate over a proposed transit improvement tax came to Langley Township council chambers Monday afternoon, with speakers on both sides making their cases.
Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation represented the opposition, while Jon Garson of the BC Chamber of Commerce spoke in favour of the tax and Mike Buda spoke on behalf of the Mayors’ Council, the group which came up with the idea.
Bateman, a former Township councillor, attacked TransLink, the agency that administers public transit, as “a very poorly run organization” that doesn’t deserve more money from taxpayers.
“You have to fix that organization and you’re not going to do it by giving them more money,” Bateman said.
Bateman said, as a former Langley councillor, he has had the frustrating experience of trying and failing to get the transit authority to pull itself away from Vancouver issues and pay attention to Langley needs.
“We always get the short end of the stick,” Bateman said.
Bateman said the proposed half a per cent increase in the provincial sales tax would only give Langley shoppers one more reason to shop next door in Abbotsford, where the tax won’t apply.
“This is not a good deal for Aldergrove,” Bateman said.
Garson, the vice-president of policy development and government relations at the BC Chamber of Commerce, said the vote is not about the inefficiencies at TransLink, and defeating the proposal will not “change that culture” at the transit authority.
“This is not a plebiscite on TransLink,” Garson said.
He added criticism about TransLink waste and mismanagement has been “overblown.”
“They actually run quite a good machine,” Garson said.
Garson warned a “no” vote would make the provincial and federal governments less willing to contribute to public transit in the Lower Mainland, and that would lead to a “patchwork” transit system of different Metro municipalities competing for funding.
“A ‘yes’ vote will be the most important decision this region has made in a generation,” Garson said.
He took issue with Bateman’s warning about the potential harm to businesses, saying the tax increase will not have “significant negative impact.”
Buda said the mayors’ council is preparing a “100-day” plan that spells out what would happen immediately after the tax increase was approved.
For Langley, Buda said the increased funding would result in better bus service “within months, especially in off-peak hours” because the transportation authority would then be able to pay for the drivers and fuel necessary.
Other improvements will take longer, because they will involve buying new buses, constructing pedestrian and bike lane improvements, upgrading major roads and building new rapid transit lines, he said.
“It takes about two years to build a bus,” Buda said, which is why the new rapid bus service to Langley would take about three years to get going.
Extending rapid transit from Surrey to Langley would take even longer, about 12 years before construction starts, Buda estimated.
Mayor Jack Froese said residents need to look at the “big picture” when they vote and consider how improving transit in other communities will benefit Langley by reducing congestion throughout Metro.
“It’s not just our back yard,” Froese said.
Froese spoke against an attempt by Councillor Kim Richter to have the Township council vote to formally oppose the proposed tax.
“I really don’t feel council as a body should be influencing this [tax] vote,” Froese said.
Richter argued the tax is not a good deal for Langley, and council should take a position even though it had voted to remain neutral at a previous meeting.
“We occupy these chairs because people elected us to leadership roles,” Richter said.
“We need to stand up and be counted on this,” Richter added.
Councillor Angie Quaale, the architect of the neutrality policy, said council was “demonstrating leadership” by having the presentations from both sides.
Richter’s proposal was defeated by a majority vote.
The transit tax referendum ballots will go out around March 15 and Metro residents have until late May to mail them back.
The 0.5 per cent Metro-only sales tax would fund $7.5 billion in improvements including more frequent SeaBus service, extra West Coast Express commuter rail cars, more HandyDart service, as well as light rail lines in Surrey, a Broadway subway in Vancouver and a new Pattullo Bridge.
— with files from Jeff Nagel