Trudeau, Clark accord on Metro Vancouver transit a first step

August looms as deadline for mayors, province to hammer out deal on new regional tax or else projects will be shelved

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson at the SkyTrain operation and maintenance centre in Burnaby Thursday.

Metro Vancouver’s transit expansion plan is closer to chugging out of the station but it is not yet fully on track, despite a high-profile pledge Thursday from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Christy Clark to swiftly commit $616 million.

The federal government’s unprecedented 50 per cent share of transit upgrades committed by Ottawa earlier this year will provide $370 million for first-phase projects, while the province has pledged $246 million as its own third.

“I’m proud that the very first such agreement we’ve signed is right here in British Columbia,” Trudeau said at the SkyTrain operations centre in Burnaby. “This is just phase one.”

RELATED: Fares, taxes and development fees eyed for transit

If all unfolds according to plan, TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond said bus service could increase by early next year, and a third SeaBus could be in service with sailings as often as every 10 minutes.

But those immediate service increases as well as a planned order to buy more SkyTrain cars from Bombardier all depend on Metro mayors quickly hammering out an agreement with the province on how the region will raise its 17 per cent share of capital costs plus another $3.9 billion in additional operating costs over 10 years.

If there’s no deal by the end of August, officials admit, the purchases of new vehicles have to be shelved, along with any early service increase.

The phase one plan calls for 28 new SkyTrain cars for the Expo and Millennium Lines, 22 new Canada Line cars, five more cars for the West Coast Express and a new SeaBus – $255 million worth  in all.

“We need some other funding mechanism to close the gap,” Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said.

“And that’s the hard work that’s going to have to happen next.”

Hepner hailed the bilateral agreement of the senior governments – the first one for major new transit funding in Canada under the Trudeau Liberals – as a “very significant” step forward.

One reason for Hepner’s optimism is the deal ensures $157 million in design and other planning work for the Surrey light rail lines and Broadway subway will now go ahead, putting those projects in position to break ground in 18 months.

Actual construction will still depend on a phase two agreement on federal and provincial funding, and the mayors and province ironing out their differences over new local funding sources.

Metro mayors last month pressed the province to agree to either a new funding source, such as a vehicle levy, or dedicate $50 million a year from an existing one, such as the carbon tax.

And they don’t want the plan subjected to the uncertainty of another referendum, like the one that defeated the proposed regional 0.5 per cent sales tax last summer and continued a years-long impasse over transit expansion.

While the mayors have previously resisted any voluntary increase in TransLink property taxes, they gave ground on that point when they tabled their funding proposal last month.

It would accelerate TransLink property tax increases to an automatic three per cent a year from the two per cent currently set in provincial legislation.

Not all mayors attended the Trudeau-Clark announcement.

Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read said she boycotted the event because of concerns new taxes or even road pricing will be unfair to her residents.

Minister for TransLink Peter Fassbender said he won’t speculate on whether the plan can fully unfold without a new referendum but insisted the federal-provincial agreement is a major sign of good faith that Ottawa and Victoria will work with the region.

Canadian Taxpayers Federation spokesman Jordan Bateman called for a referendum on any eventual move to improve road pricing, which mayors and the province have agreed to investigate.

“You have to have social licence from people on road pricing,” Bateman said. “People should have a direct vote on whether that new form of taxation is acceptable.”

An initial chunk of regional funding will come from TransLink’s sale of $125 million in surplus property in Vancouver.

Bateman called that “great validation” for No voters last year that TransLink has been forced to liquidate its own assets rather than simply seek more taxes.