– Mayors debate deep transit cuts to force province’s hand

By Jeff Nagel – BC Local News

Transit users may be held hostage by area mayors in a confrontation with the provincial government over the future of TransLink.

Some mayors want to block any funding increases for TransLink – triggering deep service cuts – to precipitate a crisis that might force the province to reverse its position and okay the use of new funding sources for major transit system expansion.

“We have to have the guts to stand our ground now,” Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan told mayors who met Wednesday to debate funding options for TransLink.

“If we’re going to have a confrontation with the provincial government, if we’re going to stand united, let’s stand united here and now.”

North Vancouver City Coun. Craig Keating said Victoria has “used and abused” local cities. “Let’s get to the root of the issue sooner rather than later,” he said.

“We have got to find a way to stand our ground,” added Langley Township Mayor Rick Green.

The issue comes to a head Oct. 23, when the mayors vote on how much more money to raise to finance the new 10-year plan.

TransLink and the mayors agree that what’s really needed is an extra $450 million a year, without which the authority can’t afford to run the Evergreen Line, build rapid transit extensions to UBC and deeper into Surrey, or operate a third SeaBus.

But that much is unavailable.

Transportation minister Shirley Bond has refused to consider allowing TransLink to tap the revenue required, through methods like regional tolling or road pricing, that would top up the sources that TransLink already has available, including a vehicle levy.

Instead TransLink board chair Dale Parker and commissioner Martin Crilly have recommended the mayors okay a $130-million funding increase, most of it by increasing fares and raising the local gas tax by an extra three cents a litre.

That option would put TransLink on life support for a year or so to allow time for the mayors and TransLink to continue talks with the province toward a more expansive, long-term solution.

“Given the options before us I think it’s the most reasonable one,” Parker said.

TransLink’s rolling 10-year plan is renewed each year and any lift in funding approved by the mayors in one year becomes entrenched as the base plan for future years.

That’s part of the reason some cities are reluctant to sign on to add significant funding sources now to avert cuts – there is no way to retract tax or fare hikes once approved and propping up the system now with no viable vision for the future may reduce the chances one will ever be found.

Corrigan said the $130-million plan would add 16 per cent more to fares and achieve nothing in terms of system expansion.

Several mayors complained of ongoing meddling by the province in TransLink’s affairs.

Port Moody Mayor Joe Trasolini said it’s part of the reason TransLink is on the financial ropes now.

“Why are we not speaking about this interference that has in fact increased operating costs to TransLink?” he asked. “Interference has a bottom-line cost.”

Trasolini gave three examples: the province’s order TransLink install SkyTrain turnstiles at a cost of $100 million despite ongoing debate over their value and need; the intense provincial pressure that led to the $2-billion Canada Line leapfrogging the Evergreen Line in priority; and the province’s order to switch the Evergreen Line technology from light rail to SkyTrain, driving the cost up by at least $400 million.

“The Evergreen Line would have been built by now if we had gone with at-grade rail, which is what the community wanted,” agreed Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts.

But she and Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender both advised against adopting the base plan that imposes drastic cuts to provoke a confrontation with Victoria, instead urging the mayors to remain united but engaged with the province.

Fassbender rejected the suggestions of some mayors who said Victoria should take back control of TransLink if it’s not prepared to spell out how the system can be expanded and funded sustainably.

“If we say ‘You take it over’, we’re going to have things imposed on our communities and our citizens that we’re not going to like.”

Bond and her officials have sought to meet individually with local cities to discuss TransLink’s challenges.

But the mayors, fearing a provincial effort to divide and conquer them, passed a motion telling Bond they will meet her only as a group, not individually.

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