B.C. VIEWS: Tug of war for taxes

Legislative reporter Tom Fletcher on Christy Clark's transportation improvements referendum for Lower Mainland

Premier Christy Clark has set off a storm of protest by imposing a referendum on new Lower Mainland transportation improvements, timed with the province-wide municipal elections on Nov. 15.

Even if you don’t live in Metro Vancouver, you’re not immune from this long-running saga. Provincial and federal governments use your tax dollars for the big stuff, including the SkyTrain Canada Line to Vancouver airport and the South Fraser Perimeter Road, a new truck route to port facilities at Tsawwassen.

Clark has promised a bridge replacement for the George Massey tunnel under the Fraser River, which may or may not be tolled like the Port Mann bridge. The patchwork of Lower Mainland tolls is a growing political liability for the B.C. Liberal government, and if further tolls are avoided, major works elsewhere in the province may be delayed as the budget is eaten up by the big cities.

Clark announced the Massey tunnel replacement in a September 2012 speech to the Union of B.C. Municipalities. In the same speech, she also pledged to complete the four-laning of the last 240 km of the Trans-Canada Highway from Kamloops to the Alberta border. That’s one of the most mountainous stretches of highway in Canada, and the province’s cost was estimated at the time to be $650 million over 10 years. Time will tell if that promise is kept.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone inherited the mess left behind by former minister Kevin Falcon, who took transit authority away from Metro Vancouver politicians. He appointed a board of experts and set up a toothless “mayors’ council” to rubber-stamp their decisions, after forcing through the Canada Line ahead of a long-promised transit extension to the east.

Local politicians wrangled for years over that eastern extension. They finally settled on surface light rail, only to be overruled by the province, which wanted the vastly more expensive SkyTrain.

The latest rebuke to the mayors’ council was when they decided not to proceed with a costly new electronic fare card system. Falcon reversed that one after taking a junket to London and falling in love with their “Oyster card” subway system. All the glitches from TransLink’s new “Compass card” program will be encountered this summer, just before those mayors go to the polls to face voter wrath.

Speaking of reversals, Stone is now demanding the mayors come up with their list of priorities for new projects. They are expected to believe their choices won’t be overruled again.

Stone correctly notes that Vancouver wants SkyTrain on Broadway, Surrey wants new surface light rail, and other Lower Mainland communities want new road and bridge works. Local governments have a long history of parochial squabbling, getting their pet projects done and then suddenly developing the urge to rein in spending once it’s time to dig deep for their neighbours.

Lower Mainland taxpayers are weary and confused by all this reorganizing and in-fighting. Many likely believe that it is their regional government that has imposed the Port Mann bridge tolls, when in fact that is a provincial highway project over which they had no say.

Clark has made it clear there is no going back from a November referendum on new regional transportation financing tools, a promise explicit in the B.C. Liberal election platform. She hopes it will increase the dismal voter turnout for local votes.

If it does that, it may be worth it. Right now, civic elections are dismal affairs, with voter turnout and awareness of local issues drifting from bad to worse.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca