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Stone points Metro mayors to property tax for transit

Transportation Minister Todd Stone highlighted Metro Vancouver mayors
Transportation Minister Todd Stone highlighted Metro Vancouver mayors' refusal to raise TransLink property taxes higher this week.
— image credit: Black Press file photo

Transportation Minister Todd Stone says Metro Vancouver mayors could raise TransLink property taxes right now without a referendum and swiftly launch a major transit expansion.

Stone shone the spotlight on the property tax option this week as pressure grew for a decision on a question for the government-promised TransLink referendum that critics say looks rushed and risky.

"They could increase property tax tomorrow and fund a huge part of the expansion plan if they wanted to," Stone said in an interview. "I think it's important for people to know that."

Metro mayors have insisted property taxes can go no higher and sought new sources the province says must be approved by voters.

The TransLink property tax – in addition to what residents pay in municipal property tax – was $235 last year for an average home assessed at $725,000.

Since property tax fluctuates with assessment, more expensive homes pay much more than the average amount to TransLink.

Stone noted Metro taxpayers got a special deal when TransLink was created in the late 1990s – the province would fund all hospital construction in the region while Metro residents would take on the full transit costs.

He said homeowners elsewhere in B.C. still pay 40 per cent of hospital projects on their property taxes and as a result many of them pay more in combined hospital and BC Transit levies than Metro homeowners do to TransLink.

Stone clarified he's not pushing for the property tax to be the main way to raise billions of new dollars for TransLink.

"I don't believe property tax in and of itself is the be-all-and-end-all of the expansion moving forward," he said, adding he merely wanted to "refresh a few memories" about TransLink's history.

Stone said he believes there is some room for higher property taxes, perhaps for higher transit fares and for some more cost-cutting within TransLink, but added they won't be enough to finance what's needed as the region grows by another million people over the next couple of decades.

"There will need to be another funding lever that would address the biggest part of the funding gap."

Gas taxes are generating "diminishing returns" and won't be the answer, he said.

Stone said an annual vehicle levy of $50 per vehicle would generate only $50 million so "one heck of a large vehicle levy" would be needed to raise enough money.

A regional sales tax of up to 0.5 per cent suggested by the mayors "could potentially get you there," Stone said. "A regional tolling or mobility pricing approach could possibly get you there as well."

Many mayors prefer transportation-based fees or tolls that could also help shape road use and make the system more efficient.

Stone said he won't dictate a solution but wants mayors to advance a proposal after an overhaul of TransLink governance is finalized in the weeks ahead to give local politicians more control over TransLink priorities.

He said TransLink and the mayors' council will then be able to explore either a single expansion scenario or a series of them that can be costed and linked to different funding levers.

Stone said he's heard arguments for bundling the Pattullo Bridge and Massey Tunnel replacement projects into the TransLink referendum to appeal more to drivers, but added there are "no plans today" to do so.

He reiterated the province will re-examine its tolling policy that blocks the imposition of tolls on existing roads and bridges as part of any fair tolling reform.

The potential for tolls on rebuilt Pattullo and Massey crossings would leave every crossing tolled except the Alex Fraser Bridge, Stone said.

"Which would seriously call into question the currency of the tolling policy and does raise questions around fairness and equity particularly for those folks living South of the Fraser," he said.

"We will need to have that debate and that discussion in 2014. It's high on my priority list."

He admitted time for the referendum is tight, but insisted it will happen with the November municipal elections.

Pressed as to whether the province will help lead the referendum 'Yes' campaign or stay neutral, Stone said he and the premier agree "we don't think the province should be at the front of the parade" – a coalition of other groups should be the main champions – but that the province should play some role.

He said the Metro mayors council is at "an impasse" and has yet to advance a clear vision to expand transit and fund it.

"There's enough blame to go around," Stone said, adding residents "just want all of us politicians to figure this out and get on with a plan."

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