Surrey wants to pry away its share of TransLink gas tax

Mayor Hepner says gas tax could fund LRT, province non-committal after Metro Vancouver plebiscite defeat

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner and B.C. Transportation Minister Todd Stone.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone is giving no sign he’ll back Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner’s suggestion that the gas taxes that flow to TransLink from Surrey be redirected to build her proposed $2.1-billion light rail network.

He cautioned Wednesday that could undermine transit in the rest of the region because most of the gas tax money now funds TransLink operations.

“Those dollars are obviously spoken for, they’re used to fund components of the system that are in operation today,” said Stone, under pressure to map out a new solution after voters rejected a 0.5 per cent sales tax increase in a referendum mandated by the province on any new TransLink tax.

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He said splitting off gas tax funding would run against TransLink’s legislation and is not technically possible right now.

“That would need to be a discussion Mayor Hepner would need to have with her mayors’ council colleagues.”

Nearly $65 million of TransLink’s 17-cent-a-litre gas tax is paid in Surrey each year, and another $15 million in federal gas tax also flows to TransLink from the city, according to Hepner’s election campaign platform.

“Surrey deserves to be next,” Stone said, adding people there pay a lot into TransLink and it was appropriate that the mayors’ plan gave priority to rapid transit expansion in Surrey.

Delta Mayor Lois Jackson said every mayor in the region would want to peel off their locally generated TransLink gas tax to reserve it for local priorities only if the province were to enable that. That would blow a massive hole in TransLink’s budget, which draws $340 million a year from gas tax.

Hepner raised the idea of prying away the TransLink gas tax as one option to fund LRT.

She said there are other possible sources and methods to get the lines built.

A private partner could be enlisted to finance and build Surrey LRT with no capital outlay by Surrey or TransLink, she said, but the resulting annual payments would be about $60 million a year for 30 years.

“It still has to be paid back. And when it’s paid back in my mind it’s a regional payback, not just a Surrey-alone payback,” Hepner said.

“We’ve always shared those costs among the region. We didn’t shirk at Canada Line and we didn’t shirk at Evergreen Line and I’m confident the region won’t shirk at the Surrey Line.”

She noted mayors also still intend to explore road pricing, which could be a new funding source in place within five to eight years, although it’s assumed that would have to survive a referendum as well.

“Some of the other mayors are less inclined to go back to the drawing board with the province, but I think we have to,” she said. “Everybody has to stay together long enough to come to a solution.”

The sales tax hike would have funded the Surrey lines, a Broadway subway in Vancouver and broad bus, SeaBus and HandyDart improvements across the region.

Two-thirds of the capital for the Surrey and Broadway lines and the Pattullo Bridge replacement would have come from Victoria and Ottawa, and Stone said those contributions are still on the table if the region can hammer out how to pay its share.

Stone said he intends to meet in the new few weeks with Hepner and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson – who head the mayors’ council and sit on the TransLink board.

“I don’t believe there’s any silver bullet, that there’s an easy quick fix,” Stone said, but added he believes modest bus and HandyDart improvements are possible in the short term at minimal cost to address the worst transit congestion.

Mayors continue to reject the option of raising TransLink property taxes, which is what the province wants them to do and would be allowed without a new plebiscite.

The 27 kilometres of LRT lines would link Langley City, Guildford and Newton to Surrey’s City Centre and the existing SkyTrain terminus.

Daryl Dela Cruz, a critic of Surrey’s light rail plan, notes LRT would require hefty operating subsidies for years of at least $22 million, potentially driving Hepner’s estimate of annual costs much higher.

He argues LRT should be reconsidered because it’s slower and less reliable than SkyTrain, which would attract more riders.