Despite being asked to pay tens of millions of dollars for highway interchanges, the province has told Abbotsford and Langley that their payments don’t entitle them to an ownership stake – which in turn means they can’t use a major source of funding to help cover their share.
The province requires municipalities to pay one-third of the cost of the interchanges. But it says the use of the interchanges is all they will get for the money.
The arrangement led Abbotsford Coun. Dave Loewen to wryly declare the municipal contribution to be a “donation,” while Mayor Henry Braun said he was surprised the province had actually articulated the scheme in writing.
“This makes absolutely no sense,” Braun said.
Were Highway 1 to be widened into Abbotsford, the city pegs the cost of improving interchanges at about $60 million. (The city wouldn’t have to pay for improvements at the Sumas interchange because it is an intersection between two provincial highways.)
Last year, the Township of Langley passed a new bylaw that would see it use money from development cost charges (DCCs) to help fund their share of the 232nd Street interchange improvements. DCCs are commonly levied on new development projects to pay for capital improvements required by city growth. The idea is that capital projects demanded by growth should be paid for by that growth, not existing taxpayers.
But the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing’s Inspector of Municipalities, which must approve such bylaws, rejected it. The Township was told that a municipality can’t impose development cost charges for infrastructure it doesn’t own.
The Township of Langley plans to appeal the bylaw rejection, and Mayor Jack Froese asked Abbotsford to lend its support. Abbotsford council voted Monday to send a letter to the province in support of its western neighbour. Abbotsford will also bring a resolution to an upcoming meeting of Lower Mainland politicians to try to get other municipalities on board to pressure the province to reverse course.
For Braun, the matter goes beyond the DCC element to the fact that municipalities are expected to kick in for such interchanges at all.
“Why should we be contributing 33 per cent to infrastructure that belongs to the province?” he asked. “That means our residents are paying for something that they don’t actually own. The province owns it so, rightfully, the province should pay for these overpasses 100 per cent by themselves.”
Cities collect 10 per cent or less of all Canadian tax revenue, Braun noted. He said they shouldn’t be expected to be equal partners in the construction of provincial and federal assets.
“Why would the residents and the taxpayers of Abbotsford want to contribute through their property taxes to a provincial asset, which is the overpasses, when we only collect eight to 10 cents of every tax dollar that’s collected from our citizens and the other 92 cents are shared roughly equal by the provincial and federal government?”
Braun said previous city governments shouldn’t have paid for interchange improvements – although he said he realized why they did so at the time.
The News on Thursday asked Braun what he would do if the province said highway widening depended on that money.
He said using development cost charges would lessen his concerns. But if the province is adamant that property taxes must be used to fund interchanges, he said that would pose a dilemma.
“Eventually, if we get pushed into a corner, we have to make a decision for our community. What is worse – having people die on the freeway because they’re backed up on the freeway and the interchanges don’t work anymore, or do we stay steadfast and say, ‘Ministry of Transportation, it’s your problem; you fix it’?”
He added that he would welcome input from residents.
“I would actually like the community to chime in a bit on this. If the community says, ‘OK, we want you to pay $10/15 million for each overpass,’ I guess then I will dial my rhetoric back. But every time we do that, it takes money away from recreation facilities – all sorts of stuff that we could be doing.”
In a written statement, a government spokesperson wrote that the Local Government Act prohibits the use of development cost charges for projects not owned by municipalities. But they said the province is reviewing rules surrounding such charges. The ministry did not answer a question about why municipalities do not receive an ownership stake in the interchanges.