An annual charge on every vehicle to help fund TransLink is one of the options being weighed to fund transit expansion.

Car levy will be ready to roll: TransLink

Questioners told many priorities wait for elusive funding

A vehicle levy is definitely one of the options TransLink officials say they will have at the ready in case the province and regional mayors agree to use it to raise new revenue for transit expansion.

Last fall, TransLink proposed but then shelved the idea of an annual Transportation Improvement Fee on each vehicle, saying there wasn’t enough time to determine whether it could be implemented in time for mayors to vote on it.

TransLink officials confirmed at their Friday annual general meeting the levy is being pursued but said the exact form of it remains under active discussion.

“(Planning vice-president) Michael Shiffer’s group is doing the policy work to enable, inform and clearly articulate the trade-offs that need to be made when you make those tough decisions,” CEO Ian Jarvis saod.

The version proposed last fall would have fluctuated depending on the carbon footprint of the vehicle – subcompacts and hybrids would pay much less than gas guzzlers.

But it’s also been suggested that the levy could be varied depending on how far the vehicle is driven each year.

TransLink has previously said a levy averaging $122 per vehicle would raise $150 million a year, but the average hit per vehicle could be more or less depending on how much is raised.

Although a vehicle levy is already one of TransLink’s authorized sources, Jarvis noted the province’s support is needed to implement and collect it.

Mayors are trying to reach a long-term agreement with the province on new TransLink funding sources, which are critical for advancing the stalled Evergreen Line as well as other rapid transit extensions.

The premier has indicated a willingness to consider using part of the carbon tax and the mayors also are exploring potential for road pricing.

In a public question-and-answer session at the meeting, TransLink executives fielded queries on everything from U-Pass fraud to the the fairness of  TransLink’s 21 per cent tax on pay parking in the region.

One questioner argued TransLink is spending far too much money to add turnstiles to SkyTrain stations to block a relatively small number of fare evaders.

“It would take 20,000 fare cheats a day to pay for it,” he said. “There’s no validity to it.”

Jarvis responded fare gates are simply part of the overall smart card fare payment system, which he said will generate better ridership data and allow smarter planning and pricing of transit service.

“It’s fundamental to operating the system in a more efficient and effective way,” he said.

Transit users wanted to know when SeaBus and West Coast Express frequency would be increased and when the promised 531 bus route from White Rock to Langley will be started.

Jarvis said more funding is needed to expand, but added the 531 is definitely a priority when extra revenue is secured.

Nor is there money yet for rapid transit for UBC and Surrey and a proposed gondola up Burnaby Mountain, although consultations are proceeding.

Board chair Nancy Olewiler said rising fuel costs are also a challenge for TransLink, driving up its bus fuel costs and resulting in less fuel tax revenue if motorists find ways to drive less.

She said the region’s mayors council is drafting a set of principles for long-term funding that will attempt to address inequities in how people across the region pay into TransLink and in the service they receive.

TransLink Commissioner Martin Crilly noted TransLink’s only spent half of the $400 million it said it would spend on capital projects last year – despite getting approval from the mayors in 2009 to raise fares, add three cents to the gas tax and triple the pay parking tax to cover the initiatives.

Chief financial officer Cathy McLay said many projects were delayed because TransLink spent considerable time restructuring its operations, but added they will proceed.