The idea of slapping a tax on every shipping container that moves through local port terminals will be investigated in detail by Metro Vancouver.
The regional board voted Friday to pursue the concept as a different mechanism to help fund TransLink – one that wouldn't hit homeowners and motorists, unlike proposals to raise gas taxes or impose road pricing or a vehicle levy.
"There are a lot of transport trucks rolling," Metro board chair Lois Jackson said. "There's a lot of money on the table here."
Richmond Coun. Harold Steves said port expansion is putting more trucks onto local roads, but there's no mechanism to share in the resulting costs.
He also noted hundreds of acres of farmland have been bought up in recent years for construction of the South Fraser Perimeter Road or for future shipping terminals.
"Most of those containers we know are going farther east," said Surrey Coun. Linda Hepner, who added the proposal may be a way of getting Ottawa's attention.
But she questioned whether truckers and shippers should shoulder the fee and persuaded the board to also pursue some sort of direct payment to regional transportation costs from the federal government that would reflect port use.
"Maybe they want to count the containers and give us the money back," Hepner said. "Maybe that's the funding process. But taking it to the industry and the port and making the port less competitive, I'm not sure that's the answer."
The debate came as the province launched a jobs strategy heavily geared to exporting resources and leveraging traffic through B.C. ports.
About 2.5 million containers a year pass through the port so even a small levy could generate millions toward TransLink's costs.
Mayors vote Oct. 7 on a proposal to raise gas taxes two per cent to raise $40 million a year and seek other sources – such as a vehicle levy – to raise a further $30 million to build the Evergreeen Line and a broader set of transit upgrades.
Creating a container levy for transit funding would be "sound taxation policy worthy of further analysis," according to a staff report by Gaetan Royer, Metro's manager of metropolitan planning.
Heavy, slow-moving container trucks beat up roads and bridges and add to congestion on major arteries, especially near intersections.
A levy that finances more transit and gets more commuter vehicles off the road would free up more space for trucks, Royer's report suggested.
He also noted 340,000 empty containers pass through the region each year and many more carry lower-value commodities.
A levy that charges those containers more, while giving a break to higher-value cargo, could foster more intensive local industry, Royer suggested.
The province has yet to respond to the idea.
But Port Metro Vancouver "fundamentally opposes" any container levy, according to chief financial officer Allan Baydala.
"It would put an undue burden on this one industrial sector at a time when competing U.S. west coast ports are seeking to increase their market share at Vancouver's expense," he said.
Most containers through the port actually move by rail, not road, he noted.
Baydala said port users are already contributing $160 million to help pay for port-related transportation upgrades, including a series of nine railway overpasses that will help reduce road congestion as the number and length of freight trains increases along the Roberts Bank rail corridor.
A container levy was last proposed by TransLink nearly three years ago but rejected by the provincial government on grounds it would risk the port's competitive position.
TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis said he's not specifically pursuing the idea right now but added "all options need to be on the table."
Like any prospective revenue, he said, a container levy would have trade-offs: the potential loss of competitiveness for shippers using Port Metro Vancouver versus the benefit of truckers perhaps more directly contributing to the strain they put on roads.
"There's some impact there," Jarvis acknowledged.
But he also noted there may be other mechanisms for goods movers to pay a more equitable share of costs in the future.
Road pricing, he said, could include a differing fee structure for different types of users, including trucks.