Fight over who will foot city’s climate change bill is far from finished

The defeat at city council of a proposal to broaden parking permits in 2022 and introduce vehicle ownership fees in 2023 was a walk-back, a crawl-down, but not a back-down.

Make no mistake: The game is on, the fight is only starting, the two sides on this issue are talking past each other, and the next move won’t be pretty.

Residents clearly support initiatives to mitigate climate change at the local, provincial, national and global level. We are well past any dispute of that.

But council unanimously approved the $500 million plan earlier in its term without establishing the framework to pay for it. We are nowhere near past any dispute of that.

Evident in the visceral public response to the inelegant first stab at financing a small portion of climate emergency plan is that the city has flubbed the job in marrying its prescriptions to our values.

And rather than strive for community unity, proponents instead chose the divide-and-conquer path, class-conscious so as to target those with more means and mobilize momentum from those with fewer, and this has unleashed unproductive and unnecessary conflict.

Proponents have defined justice as an invidious attack on those who are best, but often barely, coping with the grossly expensive city without stopping to consider how policy overreach and administrative overlay makes it difficult for even a six-figure household today.

In this generation the city has contributed permitting and code costs to the already obscene housing prices and thus to the staggering rents, bloated the size and salaries of the public service and shifted what should be basic expenditures for many civic improvements into community amenity contributions for builders and now the climate plan for many of us.

Rather than lead by example by, for instance, cutting some program spending or reducing the size of its administration, the city staff and five of the 10 council members attempted to capitalize on the pandemic zeitgeist of an expanded public sector and tax base.

This search for revenue in the absence of a search for expense control is increasingly untenable. Yes, we ought to worry and do something about how we are leaving the planet for the next generation, but we also ought to worry and do something about how we are leaving the city.

A good question some time back was whether the city was out of its lane in fashioning the plan. (My choice would have been tackling child hunger here, but that isn’t such a shiny object.) With this council, at least, that question is moot. It presses on.

Fine. The more pressing question now, because the bills are soon due, is where the financing emanates. The city wanted to apply annual fees of $500 or $1,000 on all but electric and smaller 2023 vehicles and expand parking permits in 2022 to charge vehicle owners between $5 and $45 annually if they had to park on the street.

There were so many holes in the plan that, if it were cheese, you’d ask for a refund at the supermarket.

Those with underground or garage parking? Exempt.

Those with pre-2023 gas guzzlers? Exempt.

Those bringing diesel beasts to town for work each day? Exempt.

And the context for the plan has changed since its inception. Coronavirus has sent many back into their cars. Ridership on public transit is below 60% of pre-pandemic levels and isn’t projected to surpass 80% even by the end of 2022. Meanwhile, bridge crossings are higher than they were before the coronavirus struck. People have returned to cars to feel safer.

Inflation, once a non-issue, is very real now at the grocery store, the retail outlet, the restaurant, and certainly at the pumps. It won’t subside soon given supply-chain problems and labour shortages.

This questions the appropriateness of targeting the vehicle in the medium term as a revenue base to pull $40 million to $70 million out of the local economy in the next four years, yet the city’s plan could have been written in 2019.

A complication is that the city has few tax powers. It tried to thread the policy needle without encroaching on provincial jurisdiction. Thus, no consideration for ICBC to restore a CleanAir program to immediately affect emissions because the revenue would go to Victoria, not Vancouver. If the city wants to impose mobility pricing as a local initiative, it is going to need provincial blessing – and benevolence for the dividends. Public transit progress is glacial because senior governments foot large parts of the bill.

It is important to read into what Mayor Kennedy Stewart said in voting against a plan Wednesday he seemed to support until then. His worry was that the permit plan would be unfair to low- and middle-income renters. What that should tell people is that those who he feels can dig into their pockets will be backhoeing them.

He finds himself in the same space as Justin Trudeau – with big ideas for big things he cannot deliver, creating big concerns among those in his base and big divisions among those in his command. Stewart’s political calculus now is to restore the votes he lost Wednesday with a revised plan that hits votes he never had.

We have been provided a year-early ballot box issue and candidates a camp to occupy. Without putting its own house in order, without making its own financial sacrifices for the greater good, the next step will lack the credibility to unite the city.

It will engender yet more class conflict. A gander at Twitter gives you a glimpse: Anyone against the plan is deemed a climate change denier, a knuckle-dragger or a greedy menace to the planet that needs to be taken down.

(A footnote: May I take a moment, as a father and grandfather and EV owner who cares about the community’s present and future and contributes without much quibble well more than half my income through taxes and fees, to tell the sanctimonious social media cult that equates questioning an ill-considered plan with a moral failing to kindly chill and catch your snap. Most of us are on the same side here.) •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.