Referendum Questions: Will we get what’s promised?

Potential cost overruns, reliance on federal contributions, ballot wording change among uncertainties raised by transit tax opponents

Referendum No campaign leader Jordan Bateman argues the cost estimates of major projects like the proposed Broadway subway and Surrey light rail network aren’t up to date and are likely to run over budget.

On top of that, there’s no guarantee yet of $1.5 billion in federal contributions that would be required to fully fund the mayors’ vision.

That creates some uncertainty about what transportation improvements will be built and when if voters approve the proposed Congestion Improvement Tax to add 0.5 per cent to the sales tax in Metro Vancouver.

Bateman argues residents could say Yes and then watch as the region is forced to shelve or delay some promised improvements.

Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore says more buses and SeaBus service will be deployed in the first five years, while major rapid transit projects would be built in the back half of the 10-year plan, leaving plenty of time to secure federal and provincial contributions, and he is confident they will come.

It’s normal, he said, that senior governments will wait to make contributions for major projects until there’s a completed business case.

Bateman contends federal contributions to the plan may come at the cost of other funding expected by municipalities to build costly sewer treatment or water upgrades, effectively forcing local property taxes higher.

Moore counters there’s a strong case for federal help, separate from other municipal projects.

“This is the Pacific Gateway and we need goods and people moving around this region.”

Then there’s the province’s rewording of the referendum question to delete the mayors’ references to the “tunneled” Broadway line and to replace “light rail” with “rapid transit” in Surrey.

Some critics wonder if it may mean cut-and-cover Broadway construction and more costly SkyTrain technology in Surrey, significantly altering the project the City of Surrey has spearheaded.

Moore said the shift to more generic wording shouldn’t alarm voters.

“The province wanted to ensure all options were open,” he said. “They didn’t want to predetermine the technology before the business case was done. Fair enough.”

Reassurances have come also from Transportation Minister Todd Stone, who has repeatedly endorsed the mayors’ plan and its projects, and urged a Yes vote.

Bateman also claims the plan cost of $7.5 billion has jumped by $200 million.

That comes from a report released March 12 summarizing the plan’s assumed revenues and costs that shows the capital cost over 15 years is $7.7 billion and $6.9 billion over 10 years, in 2015 dollars.

“They’re already $200 million over budget,” Bateman said, predicting higher estimates of the big projects will be released after the referendum is over. “This is just the first of many increases.”

The mayors’ council says all of the numbers are still accurate.

Moore said the $7.5-billion cost is in inflated rather than 2015 dollars and over 10 years, which covers all of the projects except the final two years of construction of the light rail line from Surrey to Langley – it would be complete in the 12th year.

Moore said the report, prepared by a joint working group of TransLink, the mayors and consultants KPMG, verifies earlier assumptions are accurate and the expected revenues will fully cover the operating and capital financing costs.

The report does outline several uncertainties that may affect how the plan rolls out.

They include partner government contributions, capital project costs and the assumed growth rate of revenue from the 0.5 per cent sales tax.

It also cautions that other factors, including demand, population growth, inflation and consumer preferences, “may not hold over time and will have an unknown impact on final project costs and offsetting revenue.”

Referendum Questions is a Black Press series exploring issues related to the Metro Vancouver transit and transportation referendum. Voters must mail in ballots by May 29 on whether they support the addition of a 0.5 per cent sales tax in the region, called the Congestion Improvement Tax, to fund billions of dollars worth of upgrades. Follow the links below to read more in this series.