Gas-tax hike to fuel boost for public transit in Greater Victoria

A gas tax increase in the capital region will fuel long-awaited improvements to local bus services that were in danger of stalling or going in reverse, says the chairperson of the Victoria Regional Transit Commission.

Saanich Coun. Susan Brice said a decision by the B.C. government to raise the tax to 5.5 cents a litre from 3.5 cents means the commission can move ahead with plans to expand service.

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The tax hike will add about $7 million annually into the Victoria regional transit system. It has a budget of $129.8 million in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

“Our plan is to obviously grow the system and without these additional sources of revenue we were at risk, quite frankly, of going backward,” Brice said. “Obviously, regular costs increase, but without the increase in the gas tax we were unable to grow the system as much as we wanted.”

She said the commission relies on fares, property taxes and the gas tax to cover its share of the system’s budget. The provincial government picks up about a third of the costs.

“The gas tax has been unaltered since 2008, so basically it’s not a lever if you can’t pull it,” Brice said. “So it’s meant that we’d had to put a disproportionate amount on the property taxes.”

The commission urged the former B.C. Liberal government to boost the gas tax in the 2017-18 budget, but came up short.

“Last year, we were so adamant that we needed to grow the system that we went ahead anyway,” Brice said. “We bought 10 buses and we budgeted for 20,000 additional hours and put them in and we just kept our positive statements going.”

The Transportation Ministry provided “bridging” money to cover the costs for one year, she said. “But, obviously, that was not sustainable, so now with that gas tax, that will help us to annualize all of that.”

She said the commission wants to establish a transit hub at Uptown, buy a new depot for servicing buses, and work with the province to extend bus priority lanes from Victoria to the West Shore.

“So these dollars this year and on an ongoing basis in the budget will allow us to do a lot of things that we’ve been unable to do,” she said.

Finance Minister Carole James said this week that more money could be on the way.

“You’ll continue to see investments in transit over the next while,” she said, adding that the province is in talks with the federal government on the issue. “So stay tuned on future investments.”

In the meantime, she said the transit commission will be able to use money from the gas tax hike “to increase transit and increase fast bus lanes in the Capital Regional District.”

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and Colwood Mayor Carol Hamilton, who both sit on the commission, welcomed the announcement.

“We’ve been working for some time to try and find a way that we can keep up with the service demands and this will be such a great injection to allow us to move forward on that,” Hamilton said.

“If we don’t get our transit system working in a 21st century way it’s going to stall our economy,” Helps said. “People are spending a lot of time in traffic. People are spending a lot of money driving cars and it’s because right now — for all the good effort that’s happened — there aren’t good options.

“We don’t have a good transit system. Our transit system is 20th century at best and this funding will help.”

Ben Williams, president of Unifor Local 333, which represents transit drivers and maintenance workers, said the system has been “neglected” for years.

“We think it’s great to see additional funds being put into the Greater Victoria transit system,” he said. “They’re long overdue. We have a number of routes that could use expansion, could use additional service.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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