Motorists face not just congestion but a rising wallop to the wallet as mayors propose a higher gas tax

Car levy should vary by transit level: mayors

Areas poorly served by transit might be exempt or pay for TransLink upgrades another way

A proposed vehicle levy to finance transit upgrades should charge motorists more if they live in frequently served Vancouver and less in transit-poor areas with no real alternative to driving, some mayors say.

The regional mayors council voted last week to pay for the Evergreen Line and a package of broader transit upgrades through a two-cent hike in the gas tax, coupled with at least one other to-be-determined source.

A vehicle levy – possibly ranging from $10 to $40 per vehicle – is being proposed by TransLink to serve as that second source but it’s unclear how it would be applied.

TransLink last fall proposed a vehicle levy that would vary based on the car’s carbon footprint – it would be low for an efficient hatchback or hybrid and steep for a gas-guzzling SUV.

That’s again an option this time, but officials say it’s not set in stone.

Delta Mayor and Metro board chair Lois Jackson argues the levy, dubbed a Transportation Improvement Fee, should instead vary based on the level of local transit service.

“It should be more expensive in Vancouver, Burnaby – places where you do have 15-minute service,” she said.

“People in outlying areas with no service should pay a lesser fee for the vehicle levy, because they’re having to pay already with tax on gasoline. That’s their contribution because they have to have a vehicle or two vehicles in their family.”

Many residents with next-to-no bus service also pay $200 or more on their property taxes towards TransLink, Jackson said.

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts also backs a graduated vehicle levy.

She said it should apply only when local transit service is well developed – areas such as Burnaby, Vancouver and Richmond.

It wouldn’t apply in faster-growing areas like Surrey, she suggested, but those areas would instead raise money for TransLink through new development cost charges when new subdivisions are developed.

Since the Burrard Peninsula is mostly built-out, such fees would play little to no role there, Watts said.

“It’s about being equitable and fair,” she said.

It’s not good enough to simply complain about the various funding mechanisms under consideration, Watts said.

A million more people are coming to the Lower Mainland over the next couple of decades, 70 per cent of them to the South of Fraser or northeast sector, she noted.

“You have to make a choice,” Watts said. “Do you want another half a million cars on the road with more congestion? Or do you want to put a better transportation system in place so we won’t have those problems?”

Watts was among the majority of mayors who last week supported the proposed funding strategy, while Jackson was one of eight who voted against it, fearing the vehicle levy or other secondary source might not be ultimately supported by the province, forcing an increase in TransLink’s property tax to make up the difference.

“For the longer term there has to be a conversation around tolling,” Watts added. “South of the Fraser is disproportionately penalized through the tolling policy in place.”

Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender said the region needs to look hard at tolling existing bridges using more modest tolls.

He said a graduated vehicle levy that is much reduced in underserved suburbs is worth considering.

“We’ve been subsidizing Vancouver and Burnaby transit service for many years South of the Fraser and it’s time other people shared the load.”

But Fassbender said it’s not clear to him how such a system would work.

“What happens as transit expands? Does the levy go up in those areas to be a disincentive to drive? People are looking for simplistic solutions. But we need to do a lot more homework on how those pieces fit together.”

BC Conservative Party leader John Cummins last week denounced the two-cent gas tax hike, which he said will be “rubbing salt in the wounds” of commuters who already pay high gas taxes, the carbon tax and soon face the tolling of the Port Mann Bridge.

“To penalize people who have to get to work by car because there’s no transit available is simply not the way to solve the problem,” he said.

Cummins would not say what new funding source for TransLink he would support, instead suggesting that money for transit could somehow be found elsewhere in the provincial budget.

He said corporate sponsorship of rapid transit stations may be one partial solution.

It’s no surprise area mayors are supporting the gas tax increase, he said.

“The province wears it, not the mayor who’s going to face re-election.”

The B.C. Chamber of Commerce backed the funding plan, saying the transit upgrades will be a boon for investment.

Chamber president John Winter said it’s critical, however, that road pricing (a much broader system of tolling not limited to bridges) be made a long-term revenue source for TransLink.

“Given the projected growth in the region, including road pricing into a direct traffic demand management system will be crucial,” he said. “Road pricing allows for an element of choice for businesses and commuters which does not exist in either the gas tax or vehicle levy systems.”