Lekstrom tells mayors he’s open to TransLink reform

Minister's olive branch latest thaw in relations as key vote looms to expand transit

Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom. Area mayors have applauded his willingness to consider new funding sources for TransLink and reforms to its governance.

Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom has fanned hopes that elected mayors and councillors may regain direct control over TransLink’s spending.

Lekstrom told mayors Thursday he’s prepared to consider changes to TransLink’s governance structure – a key demand of cities since the province reformed the transportation authority in 2008 and installed an unelected corporate-style board to make most decisions behind closed doors.

Mayors say they’re stuck signing the cheques for TransLink expansion – their only real authority is over approval of significant increases in fares, taxes and other fees – but they have no control over the priorities and choices of where the money goes.

“Let’s sit down, let’s figure out what’s working, what isn’t working and find a solution,” Lekstrom said after the meeting.

He said he agrees Metro Vancouver mayors deserve more say in how the money they deliver from motorists, property owners and transit users is spent.

“I think we can work together to take the system that we have and improve what we have today.”

No details were released on what changes may come.

“I think the province wants to tweak the legislation and try to adjust it to give a little more input by the mayors and councils,” Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said.

While a minor refinement of the existing system would be “unacceptable”, he said cities now have a shot at restoring real democracy to TransLink.

“At least the door’s been opened and the discussion of governance is on the table,” he said, adding the topic got nowhere under former transportation ministers Shirley Bond and Kevin Falcon.

Mayors Council chair Richard Walton would not say what changes he prefers, but confirmed several mayors want a full return to the oversight of TransLink by a board of mayors and councillors chosen through the Metro Vancouver board.

He said he’s optimistic about Lekstrom’s offer.

“We’ve got a minister who comes to listen,” Walton said. “Not to preach and give us doctrine.”

TransLink’s previous reform was ordered by Falcon, who denounced the “disaster circus” of civic politics and bickering at the board after it nearly defeated the Canada Line.

The result was a depoliticized board, but one critics said lacked accountability.

While mayors get final say of who sits on the board, candidates are first vetted and nominated by business-allied groups.

“Very early on we realized there are pieces of this that just don’t work,” Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts said.

Other mayors say the structure is fractured and no longer adequately links transportation planning by TransLink to land-use planning by Metro Vancouver.

The debate over governance comes as mayors prepare to vote Oct. 7 on a spending supplement to deliver the Evergreen Line and a wider suite of transit upgrades.

Watts wouldn’t say how she will vote.

But Corrigan said the lack of control is why he won’t vote for the proposed TransLink supplement to raise gas taxes by two cents and seek new ways to tap motorists.

“I didn’t get a part in making the choices,” he said.

The private TransLink board has full control over all spending and can also use a steady flow of new cash that arrives without the consent of the mayors.

It has the power to automatically raise property tax rates two per cent every year, and increase fares by the rate of inflation, without a vote of mayors.

One example of the discord over spending priorities is TransLink’s $170-million project to install SkyTrain fare gates and add smart cards.

Some mayors think it’s a waste of money to spend that much to keep a small number of fare cheats from riding for free and would have put it to other projects.

But TransLink is paying for fare gates in its base plan, over which mayors have no vote, so turnstiles will come regardless of whether mayors shoot down the Evergreen Line and other projects financed by the supplement.

Supplements are a take-it-or-leave it package that give mayors no line-item veto.

Corrigan said the TransLink board finds ways to pay for unpopular projects it wants through the base plans and then crafts supplements to appeal broadly across the region – often making them bigger and much more costly to households than necessary.

While Lekstrom’s olive branch on governance may further thaw relations between the mayors and province, it’s far from clear the expansion plan will pass.

The extra gas tax would add $40 million a year but leave a further $30 million to be raised from other sources – possibly a vehicle levy, road pricing or a second regional carbon tax that Lekstrom said the province might consider.

But a property tax hike is the backup if the mayors and province disagree on new sources, leaving the mayors making a leap of faith that they will materialize.

Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie is one of several others in the region who won’t back the plan because he opposes any property tax hike and won’t take the risk of getting stuck with one.

He also wants to know exactly what new source is proposed before he votes on it.

“A vehicle levy or road pricing can mean a hundred different things,” Brodie said. “There’s no certainty as to what they’re talking about.”

Brodie added he would support a two-cent gas tax alone to build the Evergreen Line immediately while work continues to flesh out other funding options.

Mayors last year blocked new funding to build the Evergreen Line when the province was insisting it be paid through property taxes.

A more conciliatory Lekstrom took over the ministry this spring and emerged from talks in July with a majority of mayors agreeing to raise the gas tax and seek other sources.

If the plan is approved, the province would legislate the gas tax hike this fall to take effect next April.

Corrigan warned it’s foolish for mayors to gamble that next fall – with an election looming and the HST referendum defeat still fresh – the province will approve a controversial vehicle levy that will be deeply unpopular in the Liberals’ Fraser Valley heartland.

“They’re stupid,” he said of the government. “But they’re not that stupid.”