When New Westminster mayor Jonathan Cote was recently elected chair of the TransLink Mayors’ Council, the media focus was on expansion of rapid transit in Surrey.
Specifically, journalists wondered whether the regional transportation authority would accommodate Surrey mayor Doug McCallum’s demand to substitute SkyTrain for an approved and fully funded $1.65-billion light-rail line connecting Guildford and Newton with Surrey Centre.
In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Cote said that it appears as though the provincial government wants the mayors’ council to take the lead in that discussion, which he welcomes.
“There is a recognition that the region has been able to secure $1.6 billion to invest in rapid transit south of the Fraser River,” he said. “In my opinion, that investment is best placed to stay south of the Fraser River, given that that part of our region is seeing significant increases in population and does need to have better access to the transit system.”
However, Cote emphasized that a great deal of work needs to be completed to understand the implications of cancelling the light-rail project and switching to building SkyTrain from King George Station down the Fraser Highway, as McCallum desires.
According to Cote, this will include examining the implications for air quality, land use, and transit-ridership numbers.
At the same time, he’s feeling excited about becoming chair in an era of expansion.
“The mayors’ council and TransLink are in a really good position right now,” the New Westminster mayor stated. “We are seeing record public-transit ridership in our region. And we also have very supportive provincial and federal governments that have put forward a lot of new funding for investments in public transit in the region.”
Fuel taxes may not be so stable in the future
However, Cote's enthusiasm is tempered somewhat by a realization that the regional transportation authority could face future funding problems.
In 2017, TransLink forecast that 21 percent of its revenues—$384.56 million—would come from fuel taxes (before any gain or loss on disposables). This money is generated through a 17-cent-per-litre levy.
Cote acknowledged that this may not be a “reliable and stable” source of funding as more motorists switch to electric vehicles, which would mean they would buy far less gasoline.
“It’s not going to be one of our easier conversations,” he said. “But it’s one we can’t shy away from because if…we start to see a dip in those revenue sources five or 10 years in the future, that’s when we really end up in a funding crisis for transportation in the region.”
Earlier this year, an independent task force released the Metro Vancouver Mobility Pricing Study, which concluded that “regional congestion point charges” could generate $1 billion to $1.5 billion annually. These fees would also reduce traffic congestion by 25 percent, thereby improving the economy. But they would come at a hefty cost to the average paying household: $5 to $8 per day.
“Out of that work, we recognized the region isn’t quite ready to jump in headfirst into mobility pricing,” Cote conceded, “but I think we need to continue to have that discussion. As other revenue sources—mainly the gas-tax revenue—become less reliable and potentially decline into the future, we’ve got to ask ourselves: what are the appropriate other mechanisms?”
The mayors’ council is focused on completing Phase 2 of TransLink’s 10-year transportation strategy, which includes a sharp increase in bus-service hours. But Cote, who has an SFU master’s degree in urban studies, is also eagerly looking forward to shaping what might come after that work is done.
“Transportation isn’t going to remain static,” he said. “The electrification of vehicles to ride-hailing to even the advancement of autonomous-vehicle technology—these are all unknowns but very transformative in terms of how people get around in the future. I would like to see our region start putting some thought behind those and potentially being leaders about how these new innovations in transportation can fit into our Livable Region Strategy and our vision for the future of Metro Vancouver.”
Another one of his goals is to have more nonmarket and affordable housing located in areas that are well served by public transit.
“I think those are two critical issues facing the Metro Vancouver region but they’re often discussed and dealt with separately,” Cote noted. “To me, those two matters actually need to be combined into the same conversation.”
He's looking forward to working with new Metro Vancouver chair Sav Dhaliwal, who's a veteran councillor in Burnaby.
"I've already had conversations with the new mayor, Mike Hurley, who is really interested in having discussions with neighbouring municipalities like Vancouver and New Westminster about better aligning the City of Burnaby's policies on housing [with] the three municipalities," Cote revealed. "The reality is the more urban communities in Metro Vancouver...face a lot of similar housing challenges. I think we would be able to achieve a lot more successes if those three municipalities were to work closer together."