Now both retired, George Puil and Jim Houlahan were around during the early days of TransLink.
Puil, then a Vancouver councillor, was the first chair of the regional transportation body, while Houlahan was president and later, vice president, of the union representing bus drivers.
They’ve seen how TransLink has been underfunded over the years, and according to them, it would be foolhardy to reject a proposed half-percentage-point increase in sales tax to support transportation improvements.
Although Puil and Houlahan agree that a “yes” vote in this spring’s transit referendum is good for the region, they’re not about to forget one of the reasons why Metro Vancouver residents are even having to go through this exercise.
While provincial New Democrats are prodding ruling B.C. Liberals to ensure the success of the referendum, Puil and Houlahan recall that it was a B.C. NDP government that backed out of an agreement with the then newly created TransLink to collect a vehicle levy.
Averaging $75 per vehicle each year, the levy would have raised $100 million annually to support the expansion of public transportation.
In late 2000, before the NDP was almost wiped out in the election the following year, the province reneged on its commitment to collect the vehicle levy.
“To me, it was the way to go but it didn’t go that way and it was unfortunate,” Puil said about the failed levy in a phone interview with the Straight.
Told that the NDP is pushing B.C. Liberals to support a “yes” vote, Puil said chuckling: “So times have changed.”
For his part, Houlahan was also amused to know that New Democrats want the referendum to succeed.
“I’ve never understood why they did it in all these years,” Houlahan told the Straight by phone about the NDP’s junking of the vehicle levy.
According to Houlahan, the vehicle levy would have been in place until some other funding source for transit was found.
“That was going to be a sustained funding source,” he said. “And TransLink, in its first year before they lost the vehicle levy, had pretty reasonably ambitious plans to catch up because under B.C. Transit, nothing has been done to the bus system.”
With the NDP government backing out of the vehicle levy, Houlahan recalled that TransLink cancelled its new bus orders, and began cutting services.
Houlahan related that he was president of the bus drivers’ union when negotiations were being done between the province and the Greater Vancouver Regional District for the eventual creation of TransLink in 1999.
“Everybody knew when the region took that on and they voted unanimously to take it, looking at the funding sources and the monster they were taking on, and it was clear everybody knew that they needed the vehicle levy to fund this thing and do any expansion or keep up with growth,” Houlahan said. “And when that failed, it’s been an issue ever since.”
Puil was GVRD chair at that time, and Houlahan recalled that the region was “just irate when the province balked” at collecting the vehicle levy.
“It was what they agreed to,” Houlahan said. “They knew the region needed that funding. That was going to generate almost 100 million a year.”