Metro mayors vote to hold transit sales tax hike referendum

Average household would pay extra $125 per year if voters approve Metro Vancouver-only PST hike of 0.5 per cent

Metro Vancouver mayors voted 18-3 Thursday – with Burnaby, Maple Ridge and West Vancouver mayors opposed – to go to referendum on a 0.5 per cent increase in the provincial sales tax within the region to fund a $7.5-billion package of transit upgrades.

The regional sales tax would raise an estimated $250 million in new revenue per year.

Raising the PST from 7.0 to 7.5 per cent in Metro is estimated to cost the average household an extra $125 per year, while low-income households would pay about $50 more, beginning in early 2016.

The proposed referendum question will list key projects that would be built with the dedicated  tax.

It asks: “Do you support a half percentage point (0.5%) increase to the Provincial Sales Tax in Metro Vancouver, dedicated to the Mayors’ Transportation and Transit Plan, with independent audits and public reporting?”  (Yes or No)

The mayors’ full $7.5-billion 10-year package of upgrades – unveiled last June – includes a Broadway subway, light rail in Surrey, 11 new B-Line express bus routes, frequent SeaBuses and a 25 per cent general lift in bus service, as well as more money for HandyDart and West Coast Express.

A new Pattullo Bridge is also on the list although it would mainly be funded by tolls and would likely be built even if the referendum fails.

“The alternative to this plan is pure and simple gridlock, pollution and congestion beyond anything we are currently experiencing,” new Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said.

Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart called the plan “an enormous jump forward” that the region cannot afford to reject.

He said transit congestion and bus pass-ups are teaching youths that transit won’t work and they need to buy a car.

“We need to reverse that trend or we need to build more roads,” Stewart said.

Today’s decision launches a major push by mayors and other proponents of improved transit service to convince residents to vote Yes.

The question and tax increase proposal must still be approved by the provincial cabinet to go to referendum.

It would take place as a mail-in ballot over six weeks beginning in late March, with a final voting deadline of mid-April.

RELATED:

Analysis: Referendum is challenge like no other in TransLink’s tortured historyQ&A: Ex-transportation ministers criticize referendum, discuss TransLinkTimeline of TransLink’s troubled history (mobile friendly)Mayors unveil vision for transit upgrades (June 2014)

Transportation Minister Todd Stone said mayors have largely “hit the mark” in designing the question and he expects only minor tweaking by the province.

He praised mayors for their work and called it “a plan I think the region can get behind.”

Stone said he did not expect to alter the priorities the mayors have set out or their proposed 10-year time frame.

But he said approval of government funding for major new rapid transit lines in Surrey and Vancouver would be subject to analysis of the business cases for them.

Since the province in the past has switched projects from light rail to SkyTrain, that raises questions of whether either the Surrey or Vancouver projects might yet shift in design or scope.

The new lines depend on $3.1 billion in federal and provincial contributions and would be built later in the 10-year period.

More buses and possibly additional SkyTrain cars and more frequent SeaBuses would come on stream sooner.

The BC Liberal government said in 2013 any new taxes for TransLink will have to pass a referendum, which it would pay for if conducted by June of 2015.

A coalition of business, environment and labour groups dubbed the Better Transit and Transportation Coalition stepped forward Wednesday, saying its members will fight for the Yes side.

It includes the Vancouver Board of Trade, Unifor Local 111, Tourism Vancouver, Downtown Surrey Business Improvement Association, David Suzuki Foundation, Greater Vancouver Gateway Council and the B.C. Chamber of Commerce.

HandyDart Riders Alliance spokesman Tim Louis said a planned 30 per cent boost in HandyDart service hours over 10 years would be “a step towards releasing people with disabilities from the virtual house arrest” that they’ve faced under an extended service freeze.

Opponents of new TransLink taxes are also mobilizing, with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation B.C. director Jordan Bateman vowing to fight the tax hike.

He said a key area of uncertainty in the plan is its reliance on senior government contributions that may not materialize, or that may come at a cost of grants for other major projects, like sewer upgrades.

Bateman also predicts households will pay more than $125 a year – he estimates $250 per year – because businesses will also pay PST and download that cost to consumers.

Three mayors vote against plan

The three mayors who voted against sending the PST hike question to referendum all agree more transit is required.

Mayors who objected were led by Burnaby’s Derek Corrigan, who criticized the concept of the provincially required referendum, called the plan too ambitious and predicted failure.

He said the “deal killer” for him remains mayors’ inadequate control of the TransLink decisions that continue to be mainly made by an unelected professional board.

Corrigan also noted TransLink already gets more money all the time through an automatic annual three per cent increase in property taxes over which mayors have no control.

“The reality is this is the beast that eats money,” he said, adding mayors should put aside “sexier” rapid transit projects and invest in more more bus service.

But Corrigan said he will not campaign for the No side and – pressed on his response to a victory – said he would celebrate with Yes forces if the referendum passes.

“If it passes then I think it’s going to be a positive thing for the region to be able to have that additional money into the system,” Corrigan said.

New Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read also voted against the question, citing TransLink’s current governance model, but added she supports the plan to expand transit in theory and agrees the sales tax hike is the best mechanism.

West Vancouver Mayor Michael Smith, the third No vote, also said the decision left him in a quandry due to lack of accountability and waste at TransLink, although he said he will likely personally vote Yes in the referendum.

Delta Mayor Lois Jackson, a longtime critic of inadequate TransLink service South of the Fraser, voted in favour of the question.

“We will never have 100 per cent consensus if we sit here for 100 years,” Jackson said, arguing the upgrades will bring frequent bus service to many more residents across the region.

RELATED:

Analysis: Referendum is challenge like no other in TransLink’s tortured historyQ&A: Ex-transportation ministers criticize referendum, discuss TransLinkTimeline of TransLink’s troubled history (mobile friendly)Mayors unveil vision for transit upgrades (June 2014)

 

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