Regional transit unlikely anytime soon 

Province's rejection of motor-fuel tax is 'stupid' and 'pathetic': MLA Jordan Sturdy

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOEL BARDE - LONG WAIT Without an agreed upon funding model in place, it appears that commuters could be waiting a while for regional transit.
  • PHOTO BY JOEL BARDE
  • LONG WAIT Without an agreed upon funding model in place, it appears that commuters could be waiting a while for regional transit.

The longstanding goal of creating a regional public transportation system that would run from Mount Currie to Vancouver appears to have hit a major roadblock, with the province once again rejecting the funding model put forward by Sea-to-Sky communities and no agreed upon alternative in the works.

Representatives from some of the stakeholder communities—which include the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, the District of Squamish, Whistler, Pemberton, and Squamish and Lil'wat Nations—met with the minister of transportation at the Union of BC Municipalities convention in September.

During that meeting, they once again advocated that the system should be funded through a motor-fuel tax that could be levied at gas stations throughout the corridor. The service is expected to cost $3.6 million a year to begin with, and grow to $6.1 million annually after three years, as additional trips are added to the schedule.

But according to Pemberton Mayor Mike Richman, the meeting wasn't "nearly as productive as we hoped." "We were basically told that the province doesn't support the funding model we put forward to provide transit to the corridor," said Richman.

"It feels like we are being told that we can either go to our tax base, and fund it that way, or we can wait for a couple years while the province sorts out other potential models."

The province's unwillingness to budge on a motor-fuel tax for the corridor is seen as unfair by many, as the model is already in place in the Lower Mainland and the Capital Regional District (CRD), where it is drawn on to support public transportation.

The Lower Mainland has a 18.5-cent-per-litre TransLink motor-fuel tax, while the CRD has a 5.5-cent-per-litre motor-fuel tax.

The motor-fuel tax is a model that works, said Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton. "It's a model that's well understood, [and] it's a model we think can work here," he said.

Without a long-term funding model in place, "it's unlikely we will see regional transit in the Sea-to-Sky region," he added.

The District of Squamish also sees a motor-fuel tax as the best way forward.

"I believe we have put forward a fair and viable model for the short to mid-term that is already in use in the province and would allow us to get a robust, customer-focused service in place very quickly," said District of Squamish Mayor Karen Elliott.

"We need help from the province to identify additional funds beyond what we are able to contribute to fund regional transit service across a large rural area."

The province's minister of transportation and infrastructure, Claire Trevena, was unavailable to discuss the province's rationale for rejecting the model.

For its part, the province appears to be advancing the idea that the stakeholders should look to their own tax base to fund regional transportation.

It's "important to note that, with the exception of BC Bus North ... each of the 89 transit systems across the province are funded, in part, by local property tax," said a statement from the ministry of transportation to Pique.

The gas taxes in place in Victoria and Metro Vancouver are "unique funding models," the statement explained.

"For example, in the case of Victoria's regional motor-fuel tax, which was implemented in 1993 to support transit, it replaced a BC Hydro levy that was there previously.

"In Metro Vancouver, the motor-fuel tax [used] to support TransLink is part of a suite of taxes that TransLink can use to fund transit and light rail as well as the major road network and cycling infrastructure."

The province's rejection of a motor-fuel tax has drawn swift condemnation from local MLA Jordan Sturdy, who serves at the Liberal Party's transportation critic.

The decision is "pathetic" and "stupid," he said, adding that he doesn't understand what the province's objection is.

"[A motor-fuel tax] is good enough for the Capital Regional District and it's good enough for Metro Vancouver—but it's not good enough for the Sea to Sky," said Sturdy.

"Why it's not good enough for the Sea to Sky is a mystery to me."

The motor-fuel tax simply makes sense for the corridor, said Sturdy. Approximately 25 per cent of the 60 million litres of gas sold annually in the corridor is purchased by people who live outside of the region, he added.

Sturdy also noted that the two First Nations partners don't have the option of tapping property taxes to fund a regional transportation system, saying that the motor-fuel tax is therefore the most equitable way to move forward as everyone who drives buys fuel.

Under the proposed model put forward by the stakeholders, a regional transportation system would be governed under a commission model, with all stakeholders given an equal voice.

In Pemberton, there is concern that this model could be in jeopardy, as according to Richman, the province has suggested that the stakeholders could break up the system and look to fund parts of it themselves.

That appears to be a non-starter for Richman.

"We want to do it as a single service that goes all the way from Mount Currie to Vancouver," said Richman.

"I do worry that if it's piecemeal we could get left behind a little bit. It's always a concern."

Going forward, he will continue to advocate for a strong and unified regional transportation system, he said.

"We will not be left behind on this," said Richman.

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