North Vancouver District Mayor Richard Walton

Premier puts carbon tax transfer on table for TransLink

Mayors still want to pursue other funding sources as well

An offer from Premier Christy Clark to turn some carbon tax revenue over to TransLink for transit expansion is being welcomed as a potential breakthrough in the long-running funding impasse.

In a statement, Clark said she’s ready to consider using the carbon tax to support regional initiatives such as public transit.

Such a move must ensure only carbon tax revenue from the Lower Mainland goes to TransLink, she said, so northern B.C. residents don’t pay for SkyTrain extensions.

A share of carbon tax revenue had been proposed by the regional mayors council, which is trying to negotiate new TransLink revenue sources with the province to build the Evergreen Line and finance an array of other expansion projects, including rapid transit extensions in Surrey and out to UBC.

“This is a very welcome sign,” said North Vancouver District Mayor Richard Walton, who chairs the mayors council and met with provincial officials May 18.

Premier Clark also said the province will proceed with scheduled increases in the carbon tax, which rises from the current 4.45 cents on gasoline to 5.56 cents on July 1 and hits 6.67 cents in mid-2012.

Nearly $1 billion is to be collected in carbon tax this year, rising to $1.26 billion in 2012.

The increased carbon tax that will come from Metro Vancouver from the next two increases would be worth at least $150 million a year by 2012.

Steering it to TransLink would mean changing the government’s policy to date of returning all carbon tax revenue through personal and corporate income tax cuts.

Mayors argue that’s justified because public transit improvements help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The mayors council last year refused to approve further property tax increases to fund TransLink expansion.

Negotiations with the province have since resumed in the search for new sources of cash, potentially through expanded tolls, road pricing or imposition of an annual vehicle levy.

Walton said those ideas and others must still be pursued – even if the province agrees to share the carbon tax – because TransLink needs multiple diversified streams of long-term revenue.

“There’s going to have to be a variety of different sources,” he said.

TransLink can’t rely too heavily on fuel taxes, because that stream could diminish over time if many more motorists switch to hybrids or electric vehicles.

Although B.C.’s carbon tax also applies on home heating and industrial fuels, most of it is raised from vehicle fuels – making it less reliable if motorists eventually burn less gas.

Walton said “distance pricing” appears to be one of the most promising and fairest methods of raising money.

“All the people moving on the road would share in the cost of maintaining the roads and transit system,” he said.

That would be more fair than simply tolling some or even all of the bridges in the Metro Vancouver area, Walton said, a scenario which would still allow someone in Port Coquitlam to drive to UBC without paying a toll.

“You can drive a long way and not have to pay anything because you don’t cross a bridge – where’s the fairness in that?”

While road pricing may be too complex to implement quickly, a simpler mechanism is the vehicle levy.

TransLink last year proposed charging each vehicle the variable annual fee based on its carbon footprint.

Another option, Walton said, would be to charge varying rates based on the distance driven in a year.

Northeast sector residents remain worried the financing debate will continue to hold up construction of the Evergreen Line to Coquitlam.

Walton said he still wants an overarching agreement on future long-term funding, not just a solo deal for the Evergreen Line.

He hopes to make “significant progress” with provincial officials by July.

“We’re doing everything we can to work through this logjam.”

The NDP supports using carbon tax revenues for transit.

“It’s the fatal flaw of the carbon tax that none of it funds public transit choices,” said NDP environment critic Rob Fleming, adding Clark’s offer would be a “positive step” if it materializes.