Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for February 6th, 2013

Metro Vancouver mayors lay out transit funding ideas

with 10 comments

The title comes from the CBC story, but the mainstream media are all over this today. Unfortunately to get the Minister’s response you have to go to the paywalled Sun – and this being the beginning of the month, you probably won’t have to pay. But if you do, don’t bother becuase it is all entirely predictable.

UPDATE – as you would expect the media are catching up and Jeff Nagel now has this piece summarizing the reactions including those of the minister. So you don’t have to worry about paywalls at the Sun and Globe.

It doesn’t matter how good these ideas are. Nor even how acceptable. Mary Polak isn’t going to make any decision.

“We’re nowhere near a decision that says whether it’s on or it’s off,” Polak said Wednesday. “There just isn’t enough information yet.”

Polak said mayors have made “good progress” in making the case for new funding sources for TransLink.

But she said she’d need greater detail, including how much new money in total mayors envision raising for TransLink and the timing of major rapid transit lines in Vancouver and through Surrey to White Rock and Langley.

“They’re referencing Broadway corridor SkyTrain as well as the Surrey one,” Polak said. “We need them to find consensus on what would come first.”

There is an election coming up, and the BC Liberals are already laying out their appeal in the adverts that you, the taxpayer, are funding. “Lowest income tax” and all that. Indeed as you would expect

Jordan Bateman with the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation doesn’t like any of the ideas. “I think it’s absolutely abysmal news for taxpayers,” he said. “I think taxpayers are going to be up in arms over this.”

The right wing frames the debate:  characterizing all taxation as bad, and all government spending as wasteful and inefficient. They also like to create the illusion that we “can’t afford” any new public expenditures and we are taxed to the max. Nothing could be further from truth, of course.

But to return to the Minister – the reason she is not going to be making any announcement is she doesn’t have to, and anyway it won’t be her who makes the decision. That comes much later – and even in the very unlikely event of yet another BC Liberal government, is not likely to fall to her. It will, make no mistake, be a provincial decision.

Indeed, it is the height of chutzpah to maintain the fiction that the Mayors get to make any contribution to it. The reason that there is only a Mayor’s Council at all is that when they were on the Translink Board they did not understand that their opinion only counted when they agreed with provincial priorities. They dared question the Canada Line and insisted that the Evergreen Line proceed at the same time. It is exceedingly ridiculous that they are now being chided that they have not come up with a set of priorities for rapid transit – the Broadway versus Surrey debate. Obviously both are needed, for quite different reasons. But in any event, the tame “professional” board showed that they understood provincial priorities when they started to cut – sorry, reallocate – transit service – but protected spending on the newer, much wider Patullo Bridge.

The Province does not really care about transit – any more than it cares about greenhouse gas emissions. It just recognizes that at times it has to appear as though it does.

The only new item on the list is a regional addition to the soon to be reinstated provincial sales tax. Adding 0.5% within Metro is said to raise $250m a year – and presumably is thought small enough that it will not drive more cross boundary shopping. Sales tax is a frequently used funding device in the United States, but its use here would be innovative and would require legislation.

The vehicle levy is back on the table too – which also requires more provincial legislation. It has been one of the legally approved sources for Translink since its creation, but has never been implemented.

They would also like a slice of the carbon tax – and a look at road pricing for the future. Neither of those are going to happen as they are both contrary to current government policy. The carbon tax is only to be used to lower income tax (“revenue neutral” – the same phrase that stuck us with the hugely increased costs of UPass) and tolls are only permitted on new roads/bridges.

Again, the province does not have to look at any of the proposals in any objective fashion. It simply has to appeal to affordability for families (cue the CTF). Odd that Christy still seems wedded to the idea that somehow she can get women to vote for her if she says the word “family” often enough without actually doing anything to help them.

What we are seeing is a ritual dance. We simply keep going round in circles until the music stops. The Mayors play along because most of them are “free enterprise” voters – and mostly supporters of the BC Liberals. Though they would never admit the link. They wear labels like “non-partisan” – but easily cross over to provincial politics when the opportunity is presented.

The real argument ought to be why there is no money for transit when there is always money for roads. Why the province has foregone provincial revenues from royalties in order to promote yet more natural gas extraction at a time when that market is actually glutted and prices are dropping, and are now competitive with coal. Why the province has shifted from a progressive, general revenue source (income tax) to a regressive, dedicated source (Medical Service Premiums). Why is it that transit spending always has to be cast in the light of a purely local service that municipalities must pay for, when they do not have an adequate source of revenue?

This is not a new debate. It is the same one we have been having ever since operating streetcars ceased to be profitable for the private sector. And the province of BC has always been calling the shots – taking credit for the few successes and passing the blame along for the inevitable failures. Cutting the ribbon on the big projects – invisible when critical issues like “where’s my bus?” surface.

There is one additional source I have failed to mention: “a share of increased land value along transit corridors.” Isn’t that what property tax does? Or should do? Has not the land value around – to take one example – Marine Drive Station – shot up? It is no longer empty industrial land but a major mixed use development (mostly housing). Of course, much of that increase goes to the City – and as we know, incremental residential tax revenues are less than the incremental cost of services for the new residents. So we add some premium levy on the property value increment that the developer has to pay – “value capture”. You know what happens then? The developers go elsewhere: there are always other places where the premium will not apply. A similar scheme was mooted to pay for Toronto’s Sheppard Subway – which lasted as long as the first announcement from a developer that if he had to pay a levy to the TTC he would do his development in the suburbs where the levy would not apply and not help pay for the station beneath it.

It is part of the lesson that all should understand. That when you alter taxes you change the incentives. Raise the gas tax and people drive less. Raise the carbon tax – same response. Impose a land value increment levy and watch the development move to less transit oriented areas.

We do not need any of these five proposals. What we need is an end to the sweetheart deals on natural gas – indeed an end to all fossil fuel subsidies. We will need a congestion tax but there has to be a viable alternative in place for trip making first. A congestion tax – or road pricing – cannot reduce congestion if the only way to make the trip is driving. We will also need a lot of work on figuring out how to protect personal privacy. The smart meter fuss will appear trivial in comparison. So yes to road pricing but not yet – and we need new revenues right now.

In the meantime, we have to abandon MSP and go back to the sort of income tax levels we had twenty years ago. The rich must pay more tax, and their opportunities to evade and avoid have to be eliminated. And that cannot apply just to Metro Vancouver – or even just to BC. There has to be a National Transit Strategy – and a Ministry of Cities in Ottawa. We cannot continue to talk about transportation as though land use was some sort of exogenous variable. We cannot talk about paying for transit as though that can only fall on residents of areas that have good transit service now. We cannot talk about health as though only expenditures on building and running hospitals count. More walking, cycling and transit will improve health and also cut hospital costs, incidentally.

We have to stop the ritual dance, and start having a real conversation about what sort of urban society we want in a post carbon, sustainable future.

And I won’t be holding my breath until that happens.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 6, 2013 at 10:35 am

Posted in sustainability, transit

Tagged with