TWO North Shore mayors have added their voices to a growing chorus of civic leaders calling for B.C.'s carbon tax to be diverted to transit.
District of North Vancouver Mayor Richard Walton and City of North Vancouver Mayor Darrell Mussatto said the controversial levy, currently under review by the province, could provide a vital lifeline for Lower Mainland public transportation and for other green initiatives.
"We need to invest clearly and demonstrably in activities that will allow people an (alternative) - a very clear alternative - to burning fossil fuels," said Walton. "Public transportation is the one that just jumps out at you."
The tax, introduced by then-Premier Gordon Campbell in 2008, levies a surcharge on a wide range of carbon-based fuels, from gasoline to coal to jet fuel. It was pegged initially at $10 per tonne of CO2 and has risen annually since then, hitting its planned peak of $30 a tonne - about 6.7 cents per litre of gasoline - on July 1 of this year. The Liberal government has billed the levy as "revenue neutral," meaning that all the proceeds have in theory been returned to taxpayers by way of cuts to income and business tax and through other measures.
At the end of last month, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson wrote an open letter to interim Finance Minister Shirley Bond saying that that last aspect of the tax should be abandoned. Rather, the levy should be ratcheted up further over time, he said, and an increasing share of the revenue should be used to fund public transit. The mayors of Surrey, Richmond and Langley have since echoed Robertson's call.
The suggestion comes just as the Lower Mainland's mayors are casting about for a new source of revenue to patch a substantial hole in TransLink's budget in an effort to avoid imposing an unpopular property tax hike next year.
Speaking to the North Shore News this week, Mussatto and Walton voiced support for the mayors' proposal.
"I agree fully with Gregor Robertson," said Walton. "In fact, it was Gregor and I who first put the idea to (then-transportation minister) Kevin Falcon.
The tax, as it was first conceived, was "only half a step in the right direction," he said, since it made it more expensive to drive cars but did nothing to fund an alternative.
If the money were to go to improving Lower Mainland transit - especially to under-serviced communities such as those south of the Fraser River - he said, it would stand a much better chance of altering behaviour.
In more sparsely populated areas of the province, where public transit might not be viable, the funds could continue to be used for tax rebates or to support other forms of green infrastructure, Walton added.
Mussatto agreed the money should be used to help reduce emissions, but he was less focused on transit. In addition to a third SeaBus for North Vancouver, revenue from the carbon tax could go toward district energy systems - such as the city's own Lonsdale Energy Corporation - bike lanes, vehicle charging stations and other similar projects, he said.
Mussatto was cautious, however, about pushing the charge above its current $30-per-tonne rate.
"As far as it going up, I think we need to bring along the rest of the country - and indeed the rest of the world - to ensure they're also doing it as well," he said.
Opponents of the plan have warned that abandoning tax breaks in favour of emission-reduction efforts could burden an already slowing economy, but Mussatto doesn't buy that.
"I think that the upside is bigger than the downside," he said, arguing the investment in the clean technology industry could be an economic boon. "The positives outweigh the negatives."
Walton didn't dismiss arguments against the plan entirely, but said the experience of other countries suggests the risk of economic damage is low.
"You can certainly look at examples in Europe, especially Northern Europe where that didn't happen," he said. "You're looking at much higher fuel prices in Northern Europe that people have been living with for a long time."
Walton acknowledged the plan might nonetheless be a tough sell with some people. "I think a majority of my council is lukewarm, at best, to the carbon tax," he said, but noted that if it had gone to transit initially, and had made a noticeable difference to service, the public might have been more fully onboard.
Mussatto was more optimistic. "I'm hearing people from the community saying we're not going fast enough in terms of the environment," he said. "They want us to be even more progressive."
Bringing the province on board might be another matter, however. "Certainly they're not closed to it," said Walton. "But there's no question it's complex, and it requires a tremendous amount of co-operative planning. . . . Our local governance is definitely a challenge when it comes to bringing everybody together."
A call to West Vancouver was not returned by deadline.