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Metro Vancouver, TransLink wrangle over gas tax transfers

The Compass card fare payment system is over budget and TransLink wants federal gas tax money to help cover its shortfall. - Black Press file photo
The Compass card fare payment system is over budget and TransLink wants federal gas tax money to help cover its shortfall.
— image credit: Black Press file photo

TransLink wants to use federal gas tax money to help fund its over-budget Compass card fare payment system but the idea is getting a cool reception from Metro Vancouver politicians.

The proposal needs the consent of the regional district – which controls federal gas tax disbursements – but Metro's transportation committee wants more details before approving it.

TransLink is seeking an extra $5.5 million in gas tax to go to the Compass card project, which has climbed in cost to more than $194 million, $23 million over budget.

About $125 million a year in gas tax collected by the federal government is returned to the region to help fund transit expansion and other capital projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Usually it buys new buses and community shuttles.

Vancouver Coun. Geoff Meggs said he doesn't see how the Compass card going over budget qualifies.

"That's the one that really stuck in my craw," he said of TransLink's requests for the 2014 transfer.

The extra Compass card money is to cover installing specialized smart card readers on buses, but TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis said it's simply part of the project that hadn't yet received gas tax funding and not an overrun.

Another item proposed for gas tax funding that was challenged by the committee is TransLink's request for $14.1 million to help buy out its leases on 28 West Coast Express train cars.

The 20-year-old WCE commuter rail cars have about 15 years life left.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan noted TransLink will end up with reduced operating costs when it stops making WCE lease payments.

"They end up with a cash supplement that's additional to them as a result of us walking in and picking up the cost of the vehicles," he said. "Then they'll claim they're doing a wonderful job of running West Coast Express because of the reduction in expenditures."

Jarvis said TransLink will buy out the WCE leases regardless of whether or not the gas tax transfer falls through.

But he said that scenario would squeeze TransLink's already tight finances.

"If we don't get the senior government money from the gas tax we have to make it up from somewhere else."

The old agreement governing gas tax transfers is being renewed and the Metro board has discussed seeking authority to have the money go to other regional infrastructure projects, instead of to TransLink.

Metro may seek to have unspent money available under the expiring program transferred to the new one if the regional board doesn't okay TransLink's requests in time.

Meggs said the gas tax discord reflects Metro mayors' dissatisfaction with their lack of direct control over TransLink's budget.

Reforms introduced by the province will give the mayors' council power over a 10-year investment plan, but not annual spending.

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