UPDATED: Sales tax increase focus of TransLink referendum

TransLink’s upcoming referendum will ask voters for a sales tax increase of 0.5 per cent to pay for more buses, light rail, and a replaced Patullo Bridge.

The average household would pay about $125 per year through extra taxes under the plan, if it is approved in a vote expected as early as next spring.

“It boiled down to three choices at the end,” said Langley Township Mayor Jack Froese. He, along with City Mayor Ted Schaffer, voted in favour of the sales tax question. Only three mayors voted against the plan.

“I thought it would be irresponsible not to go forward with a vision and bring it to the citizens,” said Schaffer. “Ultimately, the citizens will approve or not approve it.”

The other options for funding were a vehicle levy – which Langley mayors had strongly opposed – or using funds from the carbon tax, which the province was not keen on.

“It doesn’t penalize vehicle owners,” said Froese of the proposed new tax. “In Langley, we’re still relying on our cars.”

The other potential downside for Langley is its proximity to Abbotsford, a community where the 0.5 per cent tax hike won’t be in effect.

Froese knows that people could start shopping outside of Langley, particularly for high-ticket items. However, he notes that there are plans to ensure that on car purchases, people will pay the tax based on where they register the car, not where they buy it, so Langley and Surrey drivers won’t be able to buy their cars in Abbotsford and avoid the extra cost.

Whether Langley voters will approve of the plan remains to be seen. TransLink is not popular in many parts of the Lower Mainland.

Froese knows that many Langley resident already feel like they pay too much for too little TransLink service.

“It’s a tough question for Langley people,” Froese said.

The $250 million a year the tax is expected to raised will go towards a major expansion of transit service, the eventual extension of light rail in Surrey and as far as Langley, and more rapid buses, and a replaced, four-lane Patullo Bridge. Other bridge and road improvements, along with pedestrian and cycling upgrades, are also planned for.

“We are going to get more buses, we’re going to get more frequent buses,” Froese said.

Mayors from the Langleys, Surrey, White Rock, and Delta lobbied hard during the process of creating the plan to get major improvements.

“We put a plan together that we thought was the best for the south side of the Fraser,” Schaffer said.

The mayors council agreed to the plan, which was designed with the South of the Fraser region in mind, Schaffer said.

Froese noted that the Carvolth Exchange, one of the few major improvements in local bus service, has performed “beyond expectations.”

If TransLink doesn’t find money to improve services, roads, and bridges, congestion will only get worse, Froese said.

“Doing nothing is not really a good option,” he said.

The provincial government will now have to approve the wording of the referendum question. 

Transportation Minister Todd Stone said Thursday that the wording might be tweaked slightly, after a careful review, but said it generally represents the kind of question the province was looking for – one that is simple, is yes-no, and is about a single revenue source.

Stone said that the province won’t be interfering with how the mayors have prioritized various transit projects.

The province will pay for the referendum, but won’t officially support either the yes or no side, Stone noted.

In the long term, road pricing is the preferred option for TransLink to expand its budget, but the Mayors’ Council website says that can’t be put in place in time.

“The Mayors’ Council is committed to implementing comprehensive mobility pricing on the road network as the most fair and effective way to reduce congestion – however it requires five to eight years to implement,” said a statement on the website. “Land value capture on new development does not generate sufficient funds on its own.”

In the immediate future, the sales tax hike would be the most affordable option for low-income households, and the most efficient to implement, according to the Mayors’ Council. A vehicle levy would have cost $170 per car, or an average of $230 per household.

But for low income households, the sales tax will only cost an estimated average of $50 per year or less.

Other options considered, like vehicle levies, would charge people simply for owning a car, meaning a low-income person with a 15-year-old used sedan would pay the same as a high-income person with a brand new luxury car.

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