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Les Leyne: Horgan puts brakes on light rail for E&N

Premier John Horgan not only dashed the hopes of light-rail transit fans in the capital region on Tuesday, he got a nice round of applause for doing so.

Premier John Horgan not only dashed the hopes of light-rail transit fans in the capital region on Tuesday, he got a nice round of applause for doing so.

Addressing the 400-member massed forces of all the local chambers of commerce, Horgan parked the light-rail dream in short order.

“The business case doesn’t seem to be there.”

He signalled his government is vastly more interested in bus lanes. Watch for plans to extend them much farther than the construction that’s already underway.

It’s a bit of an about-face. The NDP in opposition made some polite remarks over the years about the potential for rapid transit on the abandoned E&N Railway line. It came with the job of nagging government to do more of everything when it came to transportation. But dithering over that potential has occupied dreamers for years.

Now that they’re in power, Horgan said, he has been talking to leaders about using the corridor for its purpose, “which is not necessarily a train, but moving people from the west into the city and back again.”

Referring to the never-ending talk of light rail, he said: “I’m not prepared to wait any longer. We shouldn’t have a corridor like that designated for just growing Scotch broom.”

The ramshackle Dayliner passenger service that formerly used the line was mothballed seven years ago, and the rail line has been rotting ever since, while a bustling bike path occupies part of the right-of-way.

Horgan wasn’t specific, but insisted the corridor should be used to move people. “I’m committed to doing that, and that will happen.”

People are wasting time in congestion, and Horgan said his government is keen to build a transportation plan for the south Island.

Bus lanes are an “immediate and efficient” solution to gridlock.

It went over well with the crowd packed into Crystal Garden.

But the elephant in the room was the employer health tax. Business leaders have concentrated attention on the downside of eliminating Medical Services Plan premiums ever since the move was made in the February budget.

Its partial replacement is a phased-in payroll tax that imposes new costs on employers, particularly those that didn’t cover employees’ MSP premiums.

And those who do will sustain a double hit next year, paying one more year of their workers’ premiums in addition to the new tax.

Horgan reminded them that he campaigned against the MSP, although the replacement came to light only in the budget. “We said were going to do it and we are doing it.”

He said he knows the replacement is a significant concern. “We understand. We feel your pain.”

He pointed to upcoming cuts to the sales tax on electricity bills as a partial offset.

But the first question after his speech was a plea to reassess the impact of the tax, given how it hits municipal employers, as well, and that impact compounds on business property taxes.

To paraphrase, the answer was: No.

The Finance Ministry is scrambling to soften the impact on some sectors, such as non-profits and school districts. But municipalities and businesses aren’t on the list and won’t be any time soon.

Horgan said the property-tax impact of municipalities passing their tax costs on to property owners is “infinitesimal” compared to the savings for individuals (assuming their premiums weren’t covered by their employers).

Horgan said the NDP’s payroll tax will be the lowest in the country, is being phased in, and makes B.C. the last place in Canada to abandon the flat-rate premiums.

“This is what rest of the country is doing. This is catching up to the rest of the country.”

It wasn’t what they wanted to hear, but Horgan held his own, overall.

The antipathy over the tax is partly offset by the sheer novelty of having a premier from the capital, with a select handful of cabinet misters from the ’hood as well.

The crowd is counting on a bump in provincial spending locally as an offshoot of that representation.

If Horgan can hold the employer health tax anger to a simmer, rather than a boil, he can count that as a win.