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Is a fuel tax the way forward for regional transit?

BC Transit set to host open houses for feedback on service

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Could a tax on gas in the Sea to Sky corridor pave the way for a regional transit system and help solve some of the ever-growing highway traffic woes?

A fuel tax is one of the solutions quietly put to the province by corridor mayors recently as BC Transit moves forward with more public consultation for a regional transit system in the coming weeks.

"Everything is predicated on how and if you can fund it," said Patricia Heintzman, mayor of Squamish. "How can we find a mechanism that we can pay for intercity transit that doesn't necessarily burden the property taxpayer but, like the Lower Mainland, is perhaps a tax on gas — a Motor Fuel Tax — that would help fund intercity transit?"

Sea to Sky mayors recently expressed their concerns about the need to find long-term, sustainable funding for any proposed regional transit system in a letter to the province. Pique was unable to obtain a copy of the letter because it includes confidential information.

"Before we get too far down the road with planning regional transit, we have to identify a funding source," said Whistler's mayor, Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. "We don't know how much we would be asked to pay but what we do know is that it cannot come out of our current transit budget. We've got a highly successful transit system... and we simply cannot be shifting funds out of what we fund locally to regional transit. So, we have to look for a new source."

At a Committee of the Whole meeting on Feb. 21, BC Transit's senior regional manager, Lisa Trotter, told mayor and council that, "A sustainable funding method for this service is critical to the success of this project. We look forward to working with our partners to find alternative funding sources for this service."

Therein lies the challenge that has always been at the heart of providing regional transit.

"I'm not saying this is going to be easy," agreed MLA Jordan Sturdy. "I'm just saying that it's important and that we get on with it."

The timing is right

Perhaps more than ever, as Whistler's visitors continue to grow year over year, Squamish's population booms and the highway feels continual capacity pressures, the timing for a regional transit service is finally right.

"I think regional governments are becoming more conscious of the demand we're seeing, that we're all experiencing," said Sturdy. "It's a recognition that the Sea to Sky Highway, as magnificent a highway as it is, is fundamentally a two-lane highway and will have capacity issues going forward.

"We need to keep an eye on that and mitigate where possible."

Corridor partners have long discussed the possibility of a regional system, with the issue coming to a head after a devastating head-on highway collision in 2004 on the outskirts of Squamish that left seven residents dead. One car in that crash was travelling south from Whistler with workers finishing a night shift. It prompted a short-lived service between the two communities from 2006 to 2011.

"That's why the Squamish commuter fell apart the last time; it was put together as a visceral response to that horrible tragedy...," recalled Wilhelm-Morden. "The immediate response was: let's get people out of their cars, let's get a Squamish commuter. Both Squamish and Whistler put up funding but then the funding wasn't sustainable and the service ended. So we don't want to go down that road again. It was very frustrating."

Over the past two years, however, BC Transit has completed a long-term strategy for the region called the Sea to Sky Transit Future Plan. Part of that plan included the recommendation to explore and develop a Sea to Sky Transit Regional Governance Structure. Engagement within the region to date has resulted in 2,700 survey responses revealing, among other things, that:

• More than 57 per cent of respondents travelled alone (59 per cent in winter months);

• Forty-seven per cent said their most common destination was work;

• Thirty-nine per cent make the trip daily, and more often than not, during peak times.

There was overall support for reliable, regular service between Metro Vancouver and Mount Currie.

This initiative, added Sturdy, is in everyone's interest.

"The province is committed to being there with our share and is very supportive of moving to implement a regional transit service in conjunction with our partners," he said.

While there are no numbers yet on what a Sea to Sky transit service would cost, Sturdy said the funding model would likely look like the current local formula — the province pays 53.3 per cent while the municipalities pay 46.7 per cent and recoup the farebox. In Whistler's case, for service within its boundaries, transit costs roughly $12 million — the province kicks in about half, while the farebox brings in roughly $2.5 million. Along with other funding sources, the municipality also pulls out $2 million from general tax revenue to pay for the service.

That funding formula may not work for a small town like Pemberton, said Mayor Mike Richman, who added: "We'd like the province to look at other models too. That's still a really big financial burden to put on a town of our size."

(For more on Pemberton and regional transit, go to page 26.)

Funding another way: the Motor Fuel Tax

Vancouver drivers pay a Motor Fuel Tax in Metro Vancouver to the tune of 17 cents per litre. That money goes to TransLink.

And yet fuel prices between the corridor and the city are relatively comparable.

Heintzman said she was in Vancouver just recently where gas was $1.23/litre in the city and $1.22 in Squamish. The Vancouver price included the 17-cent tax, the Squamish price did not.

"People are paying that equivalency at the pump without seeing any of the public-transit benefits that may come with that," she said. "The profits are just simply going into the gas stations' hands."

Years ago, as mayor of Pemberton, Sturdy said he researched as best he could the costs of transporting fuel from the refinery in Burnaby to the stations in Pemberton. The best number he came up with was roughly half a cent per litre to transport the fuel.

"I'm certainly supportive in looking at how to recapture some of that revenue that's essentially flowing to the fuel companies to contribute towards the provision of regional transit or internal transit services," he said.

The challenge, however, is that the province or the region does not have control over the cost of the fuel.

"The worst-case scenario is that we just end up with the existing price, plus whatever number of cents (for the tax)," he said.

For Mayor Richman, who hears about buses at capacity for the very limited service between Pemberton and Whistler, the answer is a no-brainer.

"I think this is one of those situations of: build it and they will come," he said.

"I don't think we can overstate the importance of transit in our area. Transit, in my mind, is the way of the future."

It's the way, he said, to deal with growth, with highway capacity and with climate change.

Sturdy added: "It's time to have this conversation and commit to a regional future."

BC Transit is hosting an open house so Whistlerites can have their say on the proposed Sea to Sky transit service on March 2 from 4:30 to 7 p.m. at the Whistler Public Library.

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