Evergreen Line in danger without another $450 million per year, says TransLink

The Province

By Frank Luba

TransLink needs another $450 million in revenue annually or it won’t build the Evergreen Line — or add much other needed transportation.

The South Coast B.C. Transportation Authority believes it can only raise $275 million of that from its existing sources of revenue plus one it has tried and failed to institute before, a vehicle levy now called a Transportation Improvement Fee.

The range on that levy would be between $65 and $165, with an average of $122, and it would raise $150 million annually.

A further $175 million would have to come from new sources that would have to be approved the provincial government.

TransLink CEO Tom Prendergast identified a potential source of that cash Thursday as road pricing, which turns roads and bridges into a commodity with a value like cell phone costs.

TransLink is currently using its surplus to fund improvements but that surplus runs out after 2011 and the organization would face a $150-million annual deficit — which it is not allowed to run.

That dilemma is why the new, professional board prepared a base case plan they called Drastic Cuts that would require no revenue beyond what is currently raised. But it would require slashing bus service by 40 per cent, selling the seven West Coast Express cars currently on order and maintaining roads at 25 per cent of committed levels, among other measures

The plan for $450 million more revenue annually is what the board called ‘On Track to a Sustainable Region’ and endorsed unanimously. It includes building Evergreen, which is the rapid transit connection from Coquitlam to the Millennium Line and a host of other improvements.

But because that plan includes both a vehicle fee and $175 million that’s currently unfunded, the board also put forward a Funding Stabilization plan for $130 million more annually that keeps transit service at essentially 2009 levels.

Provincial Transportation MInister Shirley Bond hasn’t had a chance to go over the reports closely but has reviewed it. She was “not overly surprised, but disappointed.”

Bond was critical of the apparent lack of administrative savings.

“For me that just reinforces the need for the review we’re doing,” said Bond.

She also pointed out that TransLink legislation requires supplements that have “resources attached to them.”

“The option that they put forward for $450 million doesn’t comply with the law,” said Bond, who also had another “major disappointment.”

“TransLink appears to be walking away from the commitment it made to fund the Evergreen Line,” she said.

Road pricing could be compared to cell phones, where users pay more for calls depending on the time of day and length of call.

Road pricing, which could include tolls and bridges, could also charge for driving into defined area, for the distance driven, the time of day or type of vehicle.

While the legislation that created TransLink allows it to put in a vehicle levy, road pricing would require approval from the province.

“We’ve told them about it but they’ve given us no indication [about provincial support],” said Prendergast after a media briefing on the funding options.

All the plans include a new Pattullo Bridge because it would be tolled and therefore pay for itself, as well as turnstiles and Smart Cards that would allow transit fares to be based on distance travelled and time of day.

The region’s mayors received the options Thursday and Surrey’s Dianne Watts, chairwoman of the mayors’ council on transportation, wants them to review the situation in the next four to six weeks.

But the base plan is not an option for Watts.

“We have another million people moving into the Lower Mainland in the next couple of decades,” said Watts. “We can’t go backwards.”

After the mayors review the options, Watts wants them to meet with both TransLink and the Transportation Ministry.

“We need to work through these issues and we need to do it when everybody is around the table,” she said.

A decision from the mayors on an option is required by Oct. 31.

E-mail reporter Frank Luba at fluba@theprovince.com

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