B.C.’s minister responsible for TransLink showed signs Thursday the province might waver from its commitment to hold another referendum on any new transit tax if that’s necessary to secure billions of dollars in federal government contributions.
Peter Fassbender told the Surrey Board of Trade the province will aggressively lobby the new federal government for B.C.’s share of money for transit and other projects in light of the incoming Liberals’ pledge to make major infrastructure grants and the new federal infrastructure minister’s indication that a more generous funding formula may be coming.
When an audience member asked the minister if he still stands behind the premier’s promise that there be no increase in TransLink taxes without another vote, Fassbender said he wouldn’t give an unequivocal answer.
“It’s a different day today with a new federal government, with new opportunities. So we’re going to find out exactly what the federal government wants to do,” he said. “If we need to move quickly, we need to be prepared to move quickly.”
Speaking later to reporters, Fassbender denied he is pivoting away from the referendum promise, adding he needs to first understand the intention of federal ministers before funding discussions can resume with Metro Vancouver mayors.
“We’ll make those decisions as some of those other issues become clear,” he said.
This year’s transit plebiscite on a 0.5 per cent regional sales tax was crafted on the basis regional taxpayers had to raise a one-third share of major projects, with matching thirds coming from Ottawa and Victoria. It was defeated with a 61.7 per cent No vote.
A more generous federal grant could reduce the bite on regional taxpayers and make a new tax proposal more palatable.
Transit advocates have suggested an eventual move to road pricing could be exempted from the referendum requirement, or that a future plebiscite force voters to pick a new tax, without a none-of-the-above option.
The province has long urged the mayors to reconsider their opposition to raising TransLink property taxes, which would not trigger another referendum.
Fassbender said he and Transportation Minister Todd Stone have a list of projects they want the federal government to support.
They include the light rail ‘L’ line in Surrey, a Fraser Highway rapid transit line, the Broadway subway, buses elsewhere in the region, a third SeaBus and a Pattullo Bridge replacement – all of which were on the plebiscite ballot – as well as the province’s pet project: the replacement of the Massey Tunnel with a new bridge.
Fassbender reiterated he does not intend to reopen TransLink’s governance structure, adding mayors now select all the directors on the TransLink board except the two provincial government appointees.
He also urged business leaders to support and defend the often embattled transit agency.
“I know they’re trying their best,” Fassbender said of TransLink managers and staff.
“We need to support them. Yes, we we need to hold them accountable as we should hold ourselves accountable for those things when sometimes they don’t go right,” he said.
“But you know what? On the whole we’ve got a great system and we can make it much better by stopping the negativity and getting on with the vision the mayors have developed.”