A 25 per cent increase in bus service to reduce transit congestion is part of the mayors' proposed package of upgrades.

A 25 per cent increase in bus service to reduce transit congestion is part of the mayors' proposed package of upgrades.

Province okays transit tax referendum question, with some tweaks

0.5 per cent 'Congestion Improvement Tax' in Metro Vancouver to be distinct from PST, more exemptions possible

The extra 0.5 per cent sales tax for transit expansion going to a regional referendum in the spring will be called a “Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax.”

The province has released the question and approved the referendum, which will be officially called the Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite.

In a letter to the Metro mayors council, Transportation Minister Todd Stone said the new tax would apply to “the majority of goods and services that are subject to the PST and are sold or delivered within the region.”

Metro mayors had proposed a 0.5 per cent increase to the PST, taking it up to 7.5 per cent in the region, to generate an extra $250 million to help fund $7.5 billion in upgrades over 10 years.

RELATED: Metro mayors vote to hold transit sales tax hike referendum

Metro Vancouver board chair Greg Moore said making it a separate tax may still amount to the same thing for most residents, but he noted it does provide scope for the province to allow different exemptions, potentially for large purchases like cars.

Last week, car dealers raised concern they may lose business to competitors in the Fraser Valley if vehicle buyers face an extra 0.5 per cent tax within Metro.

“I think they’re still analyzing whether there are any exemptions beyond the PST ones today and what those would be,” Moore said.

He noted treating the tax as a separate line item will be easier for businesses.

Minor refinements to the proposed ballot were done with input from Elections BC “to meet their ballot fairness requirements,” Stone’s letter said.

One change moves the promise of annual audits and independent reporting on how the tax money is spent out of the question and into the preamble.

The wording of the provincially approved ballot is also less specific about the promised projects.

Where the mayors’ ballot pledged to build “light rail transit” from Surrey City Centre to Newton, Guildford and Langley, the province’s now states “rapid transit.”

Likewise, the final ballot simply says “build rapid transit along Broadway in Vancouver” rather than the mayors’ version to “extend the Millennium Line tunneled along Broadway.”

Those changes may raise questions as to whether the province might go against Surrey’s insistence on light rail rather than SkyTrain or Vancouver’s preference for a more costly tunneled line, rather than cut-and-cover construction on Broadway as with the Canada Line on Cambie Street.

“That’s obviously one of the first questions I had,” Mayors’ Council chair Richard Walton said, but added it may just reflect the province’s desire for simpler wording.

“The minister indicated he wanted to use the more generic description of rapid transit. That was their edit.”

Stone has previously said final decisions on the scope and design of the Surrey and Vancouver transit lines will depend on their business cases.

Neither Stone nor his staff responded to requests to clarify the government’s intent.

The mayors’ ballot also said it would “add more bus service to crowded routes and add new routes in growing areas” and “add 11 new B-Line rapid bus routes, with fast and frequent service connecting town centres” while the final ballot eliminates the promotional language and simply states “add bus service and B-Line rapid bus routes.”

A new Pattullo Bridge is also part of the package of promised improvements.

The ballot also promises the tax will help maintain and upgrade major roads, extend cycling and pedestrian routes and increase service on SkyTrain, Canada Line, SeaBus and West Coast Express.

Also eliminated from the preamble is wording that “one million more people will live and work in Metro Vancouver by 2040” and added is a phrase stating the plan is “to reduce congestion on roads and bridges and to provide more transit to communities across the region.”

The final mailed-out ballot will also provide a link to a website for more information.

Ballots for the mail-in plebiscite would go out March 16 and the deadline for voting would be May 29.

It will pass on a 50 per cent plus one majority counted across the region.

The province will not fund groups on the Yes or No side of the referendum.

FINAL QUESTION APPROVED BY PROVINCE.

ORIGINAL QUESTION REQUESTED BY MAYORS.

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