Metro mayors, province close to deal on Evergreen Line

Closed-door offer made but details on higher taxes so far kept under wraps

The long-delayed Evergreen Line to Coquitlam could be back on track and under construction soon after a meeting between Metro Vancouver mayors and Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom.

The minister said he’s optimistic a short-term deal will be hammered out swiftly.

But he offered few specifics of how residents will likely pay more to fund the project, saying he didn’t want to predict which mechanisms mayors will opt to use.

The project has been stalled for months but the mayors – who control tax hikes for TransLink – say they’re close to a new agreement with Victoria to ensure the 11-kilometre SkyTrain extension proceeds.

“We’re going to find a solution to this,” Lekstrom predicted, adding he wants both a short-term agreement to launch the Evergreen Line as well as an understanding on longer-term funding sources for more distant projects, such as rapid transit line extensions in Surrey and along Vancouver’s Broadway corridor.

“We don’t want to have to go through this again next time there’s a project,” Lekstrom said.

“We’d like to know there’s a funding model in place that the mayors’ council and Translink can deal with it and get on with what we need here in Metro Vancouver.”

The region’s mayors voted at a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning to submit a proposal on funding TransLink’s $400-million share of the line.

Mayors council chair Richard Walton, mayor of the District of North Vancouver, said he won’t reveal any details until an agreement can be confirmed with the province – possibly within the next couple of days.

“It was an in-camera meeting,” Walton said. “We’re negotiating with another level of government.”

But Walton confirmed there are no new funding sources for the Evergreen Line, meaning the mayors are limited to some combination of higher property taxes, fuel taxes or a new annual vehicle levy in the short-term.

Mayors last fall blocked a proposal from TransLink to fund the Evergreen Line construction share solely from property taxes.

Other funding sources, some of which would likely require legislative change, would be made available for mayors for other TransLink projects and requirements over the long term.

Lekstrom confirmed a second regional carbon tax that would apply only in Metro Vancouver is one of the possible options for the long term.

“That’s been part of the discussion,” he sad. “It is one of the options in the pool of options that I’m sure we’re going to entertain in the long-range discussion.”

The mayors council has also pressed for powers like road pricing – essentially applying tolls on not just bridges but major arteries throughout the region.

Another promising mechanism, according to Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart, is the use of real estate profits from rising land values along transit line corridors.

When a rapid transit station goes in, Stewart said, the local city often relaxes parking requirements on new condo towers nearby, translating into lower costs and higher profits for developers.

“Should that windfall not help fund the station that caused it? I think it can.”

The $1.4-billion Evergreen Line has a federal commitment of $417 million and a provincial commitment of $400 million.

TransLink’s $400-million share has not yet been delivered.

Even with it in hand, the project is short almost $200 million.

TransLink and the mayors would not be asked for more, he said, adding the province will make up the difference if necessary.

If a deal is reached soon, Lekstrom said, the province would soon issue a request for proposals from its three pre-qualified bidders to build the new line, adding he still hopes the project can break ground and begin construction this year.

“Every day that goes by jeopardizes when we’re able to get in the ground.”

He said the province won’t consider switching technologies from SkyTrain to less expensive light rail, calling SkyTrain more efficient.

“It obviously will move the people quicker,” Lekstrom said. “It will be less at grade which will not affect the traveling public on the roadways, which is a problem with LRT on occasion.”

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