A tax on each shipping container that passes through Metro Vancouver is being eyed by area mayors as one way to help finance transit expansion without digging as deeply into the wallets of local residents.
With 2.5 million containers passing through the port each year, even a $10 per container tax would generate $25 million a year – more than a third of the $70 million a year TransLink needs to raise to finance both the Evergreen Line and a broader package of transit upgrades.
TransLink's current proposal calls for a two-cent-per-litre increase in the gas tax to raise $40 milllion a year, with the remaining $30 million to come from other sources negotiated later with the province.
If there's no agreement within a year on the new sources – such as a vehicle levy, road pricing or a second carbon tax – property taxes would go up temporarily instead.
A container tax will be pursued in the fall as one possible alternative, said North Vancouver District Mayor Richard Walton, who chairs the Mayors' Council on Regional Transportation.
"It's one source we'd like to see in place," he said. "There's obviously going to be some differences of opinion. There's going to be some pushback."
The provincial government rejected the idea when TransLink last proposed a cargo container tax in early 2009.
Port Metro Vancouver officials had said it would be too heavy a burden for businesses during a recession.
But now, with the economy improved, a new premier in charge and a provincial election that could come soon, mayors figure it's worth another try.
Walton said the rationale for such a container tax still exists.
Heavy, slow-moving container trucks beat up roads and bridges and add to congestion on major arteries, especially near intersections.
And, he said, truckers could benefit from reduced congestion if a tax on containers helps fund transit expansion, leading more motorists to park their cars.
"The more public transit you provide the fewer cars there are on the road and you free up capacity."
Nobody wants to pay higher taxes for TransLink, Walton said, adding a container tax is one more way to expand the number of revenue sources and spread around the pain to deliver more service.
"There's no silver bullet for this," he said. "There's only silver buckshot."
Delta Mayor Lois Jackson, chair of the Metro Vancouver board, also backs the idea.
"The big rigs hauling containers are using a lot of road space so they should be paying some of these costs," she said.
"It seems to me $5 a container – or anything – would be better than nothing."
The idea isn't unprecedented – several U.S. ports already tax containers.
Mayors in May adopted a set of guiding principles for future funding of regional transportation.
One plank of the document says money should be raised from the goods movement industry "to offset the costs of transporting goods throughout Metro Vancouver, recognizing its role as a gateway to the province and the nation."
Bob Wilds, managing director of the Greater Vancouver Gateway Council, said a container tax would damage Port Metro Vancouver's ability to compete against ports in Seattle and Tacoma.
"We'd certainly be opposed to any kind of tax on containers," he said.
"We're already paying the highest fuel taxes compared to most other places."
Port officials also argue that since more than half of containers are shipped through Metro Vancouver by rail, a tax for road work on train-hauled cargo would be unfair.
Dump trucks and other heavy trucks that don't haul containers but also use the roads, meanwhile, would not have to pay the tax.
Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom said in an email he could not comment on the idea of a container tax since TransLink hasn't formally proposed one.
He said Port Metro Vancouver has a very competitive tax structure, adding it's "one of the reasons why the Pacific Gateway is the preferred gateway for trade with North America and the world."
As a result, Lekstrom said, terminal operators have invested more than $600 million here over the last three years.