I can’t quite figure out if our transit financing strategy is more of a hallucinatory dream or a daunting nightmare.
We are certainly heading into a period of magical thinking. I guess that means the horror show follows.
Let’s look at the gauzy, delusional part first.
Ponder this, fellow taxpayer: wouldn’t life be beautiful – be wondrously dreamy – if we knew how we would find the money for something without yet knowing its price tag? Whatever the expense, taken care of.
Ideal, idyllic, yet this is the otherworldly, crazytown escapade upon which we are embarked for our transit improvements in Metro Vancouver. In recent days we have been told how the region will raise the money – at least, for this early, early stage of a long, long financing journey – just not how much it will eventually need.
Usually in political announcements, the details of how and how much are married. Right now they are solitary singles.
That is because TransLink has missed its self-imposed deadline repeatedly on revising – or at least disclosing – its estimated budget for a subway extension of the Millennium Line some time mid-next decade, for an LRT project for Surrey some time sooner, and the increased services meantime.
There is an eerie silence about what is being found underground that construction will encounter and about how extensive is the inevitable escalation of expense.
No problem, though. Let’s just put the cart of cash before that horse that must work to pull it along. Let’s tantalize riders with some extra buses and trains. Above all, let’s not talk about the looming, sleeping giant.
To get to that first level of financial support from the federal and provincial governments – speculative developers are waiting to build around the corridor, as we know – the regional mayors have identified their strategic pain points for citizens to bear.
There is a minuscule property tax increase, even though the mayors said not so long ago they would not do so. Be forewarned: they may be back tapping into this well before long.
There is an inflation-paced fare increase in 2018, even though the travelling public likely finds service hardly worth the extra money.
There is a tax on development near transit stations, even though those buildings would be better to create child-care spaces, parks or other amenities.
There is a surplus land sale, even though we are crying out for public housing, and a redirection of gas tax revenue.
Then there is a grand wild card, the environmentalist’s love that dare not speak its name: new road tolls or, as the marketers like to call it, mobility pricing. Here is where the rubber hits the road.
Cue Alice Cooper. Welcome to my nightmare.
In principle, we know we will need ingenuity to pay for overdue transit improvement. Cities in our region neglected to properly plan transit expansion over the last two decades, and the province has played a cagey game around transit governance to make the region beholden.
In practice, though, the ideas that typically emerge to pay big bills usually flow from the premise that someone else should.
Road tolls are every non-driver’s answer to transit funding.
In our case, they are an extra block of salt into the wound of every motorist driven from Vancouver because of unaffordability. Effectively we are saying: sorry you can’t live here, but at least you can pay for the privilege to drive here.
The tolls need the province’s approval, and early indications are we will get only the vaguest of its inclinations about the scheme before, say, next May 9. It’s hard to imagine the province sanctioning this concept without a plebiscite because of its colossal tax implication and contentious public imposition.
This is only the first of three phases of financing, and it’s the easiest of the lot.
The real money comes when the designers get out of the way and the builders get into the ditches – that is, if the province still is supportive and the federal government still has the money.
The worst part of this bad dream is that we know it will be recurring.
Kirk LaPointe is Business in Vancouver’s vice-president of audience and business development