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Who will pay for Lower Mainland transit?

VANCOUVER - At the press conference that followed a morning forum on Metro Vancouver transportation, all sides happily agreed that this growing region needs better transit infrastructure.

B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair said it's good for workers, BC Chamber of Commerce president John Winter said it's necessary for economic development and David Suzuki said it's critical to reduce carbon emissions.

"The only question today is, who will pay?" asked Sinclair.

That's been the question since January, 2008, when the provincial government announced a long-term transit plan for the region but committed only $4.75 billion of the $11.1 billion in new funding requirements. Last fall, TransLink predicted a deficit of $500 million per year by 2012.

The Mayor's Council on Regional Transportation, which hosted the forum and the press conference, signed an accord this afternoon that proposes a transportation improvement funding policy, to be developed and funded by all three levels of government and TransLink.

"Transportation is the biggest issue bar none that we are dealing with right now," said Surrey mayor Dianne Watts, who chairs the council. "We need an integrated system and we need that system supported by a framework and foundation of good public policy that will give us a sustainable source of revenue."

Earlier this year, the mayor's council waded into the debate, suggesting the province use a portion of the carbon tax to help cover transit costs (which is unlikely, Premier Campbell has indicated). It also suggested a container tax on the region's ports, which could only happen under the authority of Transport Canada.

At the same time, municipal governments are loathe to see increased taxes or transit fares, said Bowen Island councillor Peter Frinton.

"You simply can't make users pay more than they can afford, he said. "Look at what's happening to BC Ferries."

Watts was enthusiastic about the accord, which she said will "move things forward," but finding those revenue sources is a highly-charged issue that spans jurisdictions. It remains to be seen what influence the council will have.

Robert Paddon, TransLink's vice president of corporate and public affairs, said the board will take all deliberations under consideration as it prepares its long-term transportation and funding plan, to be submitted to the mayor's council by the end of July.

"We have some tools in our legislation that we haven't used, like the transportation improvement fee," said Paddon. "We've looked at those tools, which could carry us through to $260 to $270 million a year. Beyond that, what we have today isn't sufficient to get us to where we need to go. We'll have to find some other sources."

Colleen Kimmett reports for The Tyee.

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