Mayors’ Council and TransLink executives voted Thursday to raise the gas tax and fund the $7.3 billion Phase 2 investment plan that would bring light rail to Surrey and extend the Millenium SkyTrain along the Broadway corridor.
The plan includes $1.3 billion in Expo and Millennium SkyTrain line upgrades, $2.83 billion for the new Millennium Line Broadway extension in Vancouver and $1.65 billion for the first phase of Surrey light rail.
Combined costs for both major rail projects have gone up by nearly $1 billion since the last time costs were updated in 2015.
Mayors’ Council chair Derek Corrigan said that the province “has provided TransLink on more certainty on the source of its promised $30 million annual commitment” to close the regional funding gap.
Taking effect next spring, the gas tax will go up by 1.5 cents per litre to 18.5 cents and cost drivers in the region an estimated $22 extra per year. It will be the first increase in gas tax since 2012, Corrigan said.
In total, that will mean that Metro Vancouver drivers would pay nearly 35 cents in fuel and carbon taxes per litre of gasoline; nearly 10 cents higher than Greater Victoria and a dozen cents more than the rest of the province.
Corrigan said that even with the increased tax, drivers will be paying a smaller share of transit costs by 2027 than they do today.
The gas-tax hike sparked a back-and-forth between the region’s mayors Thursday, with many saying that the “11th hour” letter from the province enabling the gas tax hike isn’t a fair solution for the region.
Derek Corrigan says that while he has not always supported the 10-year-vision, and has been seen as "anti-transit," it's time to go ahead with phase two investment.— Kat Slepian (@katslepian) June 28, 2018
"If you have vision, eventually you have to pay for it."@BlackPressMedia
Corrigan defended the timeline.
“It’s been a matter of a few days that there’s been any knowledge of this being the option,” he said “Back in February and March, that option was off table. It came as a surprise.”
The mayors had hoped it would come out of general revenue, he said.
“This was not our first choice, and obviously there are some mayors who feel they were boxed in and that getting the plan through required them to absorb something they didn’t want to absorb,” said Corrigan.
Langley Township Mayor Jack Froese said he was “concerned” the fuel tax was not fair to residents who might have no good transit options nearby.
“It’s a fantastic plan… but the fuel tax is very disturbing,” he said.
Froese called for a vote – which was ultimately unsuccessful – to refer the plan back to staff.
Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read agreed with Froese.
“This isn’t idea for the entire region. We have a significant equity problem in this region when it comes to transit,” Read said.
“Citizens driving from the eastern part of this region are going to be hard hit. Even if this is a small increase, it’s death by 1,000 cuts.”
Read also pointed to the record-high gas prices already hitting Metro Vancouver, any increase would simply drive more people to fill up beyond the area’s borders or down south into the U.S.
But New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Cote said it was not worth throwing out the plan over a small detail.
“Has this plan developed a sustainable longterm model for transportation in our region today and into the future? No, I don’t believe it has,” Cote said. “But the sentiment I’m hearing from the public is they want to move beyond the small debates between a cent here, a small component of the funding.”
Cote warned that not moving ahead with the plan could jeopardize the billions of dollars in senior-government investment.
Interesting to note that the gas tax hike is being approved just months before this fall’s municipal elections. Many Metro Vancouver mayors sitting on the @mayors_council are not seeking re-election. Vote on increase will go ahead today. @BlackPressMedia— Kat Slepian (@katslepian) June 28, 2018
Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said that although the gas tax was not necessarily the best solution to fill the funding gap, voting to enable it allowed “the largest investment in transportation in B.C. history” to move ahead.
Hepner said the increase is still not set in stone, and that mayors can, and should, continue talking about how to come up with a longterm, sustainable solution.
“Today, it as important to pass the investment plan so that at the end of the day, we know we have this piece covered if we have to,” she said.
“It will be up to a whole new table of mayors to make sure that Phase 3 happens and a funding model is developed for Phase 3 that is more sustainable.”
But Corrigan said it was incorrect to think of the gas tax as anything but “a certainty.”
“Staff could not go ahead with implementing the plan without knowing that there is a backstop to be able to fund it completely,” he said.
“It is the only source that we have to close that $30 million gap.”
Corrigan said that although mayors could look at other ways to cut costs and reduce the $30-million-per-year gap, they couldn’t make any promises.
Although a recent mobility pricing report recommended nixing the fuel tax when the new road pricing came in, Corrigan said that was too far into the future.
“I don’t think the government is going to entertain going to mobility pricing at this point, given that they’ve taken the tolls off the bridges,” he said.
The mayors have suggested other options to the province, like rental car fees, vehicles levies and charging incoming ride-hailing companies.