Editorial: Will tax boost transit use?

Transit in Greater Victoria got a boost from this year’s provincial budget, in the continuing quest to entice commuters out of their cars and onto buses.

The question, of course, is: If B.C. Transit builds it, will they come?

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The Victoria Regional Transit Commission is betting they will, so it has plans to spend the extra two cents per litre it will receive in gas taxes in the capital region. As enthusiastic as the commission is, those extra two cents will not be welcomed by most drivers, as gas prices have hit $1.50 per litre.

The increased tax will mean another $7 million a year for transit in Greater Victoria, on top of its current $129.8-million budget, which comes from fares, property taxes, the gas tax and provincial-government funding.

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

The commission had lobbied the former B.C. Liberal government for a gas-tax increase, but to no avail. Determined to move ahead with its plans, the commission bought 10 buses and added 20,000 hours of service, crossing its collective fingers that the money would appear eventually.

That’s a risky way to operate, so the members are fortunate that B.C.’s new government was willing to increase the tax for the first time since 2008.

What will we get for that money? Among other things, a transit hub at Uptown and a new depot for servicing buses. Transit will also work with the province to extend bus priority lanes from Victoria to the West Shore.

That last item is the one that B.C. Transit hopes will make a big difference. The congestion on the Trans-Canada Highway tortures commuters every day. The McKenzie interchange, whose construction is upending lives for homeowners and drivers, will not fix the Colwood Crawl. Any relief from widened roads will vanish quickly, as it has everywhere else in the world.

Some form of mass transit is the only way to make life bearable — for drivers and every other commuter.

Bus-priority lanes are likely the cheapest way to get faster mass transit, but will it be fast enough and convenient enough to get people to switch? It has to move them quickly and be available when they need it.

That’s the joy of light-rail systems, which make frequent trips and travel quickly. But B.C. Transit pegs LRT construction costs at $14 million per kilometre. While some doubt that figure, it’s clearly a massive project for a region with relatively low population density.

Using the E&N rail corridor for trains, LRT or buses is an obvious option, but despite vigorous debate, we are nowhere near an agreement on how to use that valuable stretch of land.

So, for now, we have to hope those bus lanes will be a sufficient improvement over current transit service to lure drivers. They won’t help those who have to run errands before or after work, or who have to take kids to their many activities. However, for those going direct from home to work and back, a quick, relaxing ride might be attractive enough.

The only consolation for drivers who are annoyed by the tax increase is that added transit service just might keep some cars off the road, making their commute easier.

Bus passenger or car driver, B.C. Transit has to show residents they’re getting value for that tax increase.

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