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Mayors push for carbon-tax money to fund transit

April 21st, 2009 · 34 Comments

Faced with mounting bills at TransLink and no way of paying them except to keep going back to transit fares and property taxes, the region’s mayors have decided to make transit funding a campaign issue. They’re holding their (required) in-camera meeting tomorrow to talk about their plan to ask for some of the millions in carbon-tax revenue to help fund the system. You can read my story here.

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  • DMJ

    But the carbon tax is a gas tax and it just goes into general revenue.

    Not a penny spent on transit until the taxpayer can vote on projects!

  • Darcy McGee

    Firstly, the carbon tax is not a gas tax. It’s a carbon tax. There’s a difference.

    I could set up an off the grid mansion powered by a mini-coal fired plant and I’d be paying carbon tax, but I would not be using gas. You can’t call that a gas tax.

    There is ALSO a gas tax, but that is a separate tax.

    The Carbon Tax should ABSOLUTELY be used to fund public transit, and most notably an expansion of it (with the goal of reducing carbon output, and therefore reducing revenue from the carbon tax.)

    It should NOT be used to fund road infrastructure: that should be funded from property taxes and general revenue, including (but not limited to) the gas tax…which is, after all, paid for by vehicles that use the roads.

  • LP

    “It should NOT be used to fund road infrastructure: that should be funded from property taxes and general revenue, including (but not limited to) the gas tax…which is, after all, paid for by vehicles that use the roads.”

    The problem with funding road infrastructure from property taxes, is that certain municipalities whose citizens live there and commute into other cities to work, are the ones causing most of the problem.

    I would doubt very much that Port Moody for example would raise their property taxes sufficiently to support their citizens use of the roads they use to drive to work each day, while Richmond for example would not.

    The lower mainland is full of mayors/councils who have skated around the issue that they have grown in size at the expense of congestion, pollution, etc.

    All the while their cities are using the bulk of the transportation infrastructure without putting in their fair share to pay for it and the pollution they generate.

    Saying that property taxes and gr should be what goes to fund roads isn’t a realistic proposition with our regional structure in this day and age.

  • Darcy McGee

    That’s why I said “property taxes and general revenue”

  • T W

    The carbon tax now seems, perhaps cynically, as an attempt by one level of the political spectrum to garner polical kudos with little risk and leave the political risks downloaded onto the various local and regional governments.

  • michael geller

    If I had been hired as the Liberal’s communications officer, I would have called it A POLLUTION TAX, because in effect, that is what it is intended to be. And while I rarely disagree with Carole Taylor, I would not have made it ‘revenue neutral’; I would have channelled the revenues into improved public transit, throughout the province.

    So I am in support of the Regional Mayors’ call for allowing the revenues from this ‘pollution tax’ to be used for improvements to public transit.

    Before signing off, I would reiterate what the Mayor said on CBC this morning. The municipalities across Canada only receive 8% of the tax revenues that are collected by the various levels of government. It is not enough to fund the activities we expect from the local level of government. And we cannot continue to increase property taxes.

    We therefore need to be more creative in identifying other sources of revenue to fund transit improvements…and since I am not running for office, I can say that I support an investigation of more user fees….tolls, congestion taxes, etc. in order to fund a better transit system.

    Using a portion of the pollution tax is a good start.

  • Chris

    If the provincial government was serious about reducing emissions, all of the revenue from the carbon tax would go into emission reducing programs, like public transit.

  • Darcy McGee

    Michael, it’s not a pollution tax. It’s a tax on inputs, not on outputs.

    A pollution tax would require detection and measuring at too many points. An input tax requires detection and measurement at far far fewer points (i.e. gas stations, rather than individual cars.)

    A “pollution” tax would likely lead to numerous court challenges as well, as companies take the government to court to argue that /their/ coal fired sawmill doesn’t pollute as much as someone else’s, and therefore it’s inappropriate that they be charged the same amount of tax.

    So I wouldn’t call it a pollution tax because it’s wrong, but I do agree that the Liberals should tie communications around the tax’s goals to “decreasing pollution.”

    Making it revenue neutral is a GOOD thing. Remember the goal here is to make if revenue neutral ACROSS THE PROVINCE not for each individual. The government is saying that they’re not grabbing more money from our collective pocket, but Michael might now pay more than Darcy…because Darcy cycles to work almost every day (you might too…just a theoretical example.) It’s a redistribution of the burden, with a goal of no net collective increase in the tax burden.

    We do need to be more creative with funding for “general” infrastructure. We also need to plan more carefully. Transportation infrastructure does provide a “general” benefit, and the burden should be shared amongst cities (which have a limited tax base) and other levels of government.

    Of course this happens now, but not in a very predictable way…unless you consider giving municipalities random amounts of money every four years or so “predictable.”

  • Darcy McGee

    Chris: the tax isn’t designed to address just transportation, so 100% of its funds shouldn’t GO to transportation. Some of it can and should go to improving the efficiency of power generating stations and transmission, and some of it’s should be used to fund home energy efficiency standards.

    But yes, that fund shoul ABSOLUTELY be used to produce public transit. Most notably, as I said above, it should be used to CREATE new public transit, not simply maintain existing ones.

  • This is a great way to Fix the Tax. People want choices so they can avoid paying the carbon tax.

    No one cares that the tax is revenue neutral. For most people it is not. For the ones paying more, they aren’t going to be that happy. For me, I would much rather have better transit than an extra $100 a year from some poor shmuck in a pickup truck from Fort St. Bob.

    For people in communities without transit, the revenue from the tax should be used to fund projects within that community that help people or the community reduce their GHG emissions.

  • indepedent mind

    The carbon tax is a phony environmental ploy by the Liberals to paint themselves green. Of course all regressive taxes hurt the poor more. I doubt I am going to run into any heads of corporations on the bus.

    Anyways. The feds had a fuel tax a few years ago that went to paying for transit. Now there is the suggestion that the carbon tax revenue be put towards transit.

    I guess I am left with what’s the difference other than the name.

  • Carbon Taxes are not regressive. The carbon footprints of the rich are ten times that of the average person. As well, the poor are far less likely to own a car and are far more likely to use transit.

    The poor are also more likely to live along busy roads and suffer the health impacts of pollution. Decreased traffic and improved transit should improve the quality of life along major roads.

  • MB

    The central issue is about money — or more accurately, the lack of it — to fund transit.

    I say transit instead of ‘transporation’ because the latter usually means building infrastructure to maintain near total car-dependence (at least in our urban society), and that paradigm will start declining when the premise of ‘cheap fuel forever’ exposes its feet of clay.

    Transit in all modes, by comparison, has been grossly and historically underfunded, and local officials must stoop to begging for crumbs and fighting amongst themselves when they do drop from larger hands.

    But some of these same elected officials have dirty hands from actively promoting sprawling single family subdivisions with exorbitantly large lots, unsustainable far flung business parks, excessive road standards, and thus locking in car dependence.

    Appropriate land use and transit must be married, not divorced, and that occurs at the local level. We have to look at our cities with new eyes, and accept large investments of public money for transit only when we adopt Smart Growth principles.

    Why are the feds not even part of this discussion? Their absense is shameful. Canadian cities, where 85% of us live, need all the help they can get to become more efficient and to help citizens, business and institutions meet the serious challenges ahead. If it takes a consitutional ammendment to allow the federal government to become more directly involved in Canadian cities, then so be it.

  • LP

    Unless those commenters talking about using this money for transit, are referring to building skytrain type transit systems, or systems that don’t include any type of mass transportation vehicle using a roadway, I don’t know how it is even possible to increase/improve transit, without building or enhancing our roadways.

    My thought is that they go hand in hand whether we like it or not. Even if we went with streetcars or Euro-style trams, the streets and roadways would still need improvement and upgrading.

    I would also add that many of you in the past have written comments about how Vancouver is a city for the rich and is becoming increasingly unaffordable to the average family. I’m referring to different FB posts of course.

    The more we push people out of their cars and into transit, the more the roadways will also then become the roadways for the rich and famous.

    I can hear the rebuttals now…..however, my intent with that comment isn’t to ignite a firestorm, only to provoke some deeper thought than “transit good”, “car bad” (please do in caveman voice).

  • Darcy McGee

    MB: The absence of the feds is a MAJOR problem, and one that was perpetuated by the liberals even before the federal conservatives came to power. Paul Martin talked a good game, but never really showed up at the table in a meaningful way. Mike Harcourt’s appointment as the chair of the Advisory Committee on Cities did nothing. It was lip service. Nothing else.

    The problem will NOT get better as long as the electoral truism of Canada continues that the Conservative party wins based on its rural support, and completely lacks urban support. Why would the party do anything for cities when cities don’t vote for them?

    So…get a smart Liberal leader back into power and pressure the HELL out of him to both address the urban issues and the public transit issue. (We need rapid regional transit to link disparate semi-urban regions whenever possible.)

  • Denis

    Let’s cut to the chase. Gordo needs money and had another vision. Bring in a so called carbon tax, claim it’s revenue neuatral and some folks will buy it. why not dumpt it into rapid transit, buses, lighte rail. Hell no Gordo wants it for the big items like the Olympics, convention cener and anything that shows his cutting a ribbon . at least tjis time around he isn’t strumming his guitar and wearing a plaid shirt to go with his shiny cowboy boots. Press on mayors, and get some relief for municipal tax payers.

  • Dawn Steele

    Who – apart from politicians and pundits – cares if it’s revenue neutral across the province? The people who actually pay it only care about whether it’s going to be revenue neutral to them as individuals.

    And that can only happen if those individuals each have a greener tax-neutral alternative that they can feasibly switch to. If they don’t have such an alternative, then you’re unfairly punishing people who have no choice but to do what they’re doing.

    That’s fundamentally unfair, unreasonable, and only serves to create resentment and set back the greater green cause.

    This debacle is turning people who might otherwise have quite willingly done the right thing into fodder for a major anti-green backlash and seriously setting back the urgent mission to start tackling climate change. I’m astonished by how badly this has been bungled by people who should know better.

  • Darcy McGee

    I’m editing the following sentence for accuracy. My edit in all caps.

    > The SELFISH people who actually pay it only care about whether it’s going to be
    > revenue neutral to them as individuals.

    All forms of taxation apply more to some than others, unless you’re suggesting that taxes be assessed on a dollar per person basis, without regard to income or any other factor which varies from person to person.

  • Not running for mayor

    Hopefully w/o sounding like a right-wing nuthugger, the federal conservatives have actually opened up the taps for urban spending since being elected, they have increased transfer payments to the highest levels ever and have devoted Billions to transit projects across the country. Obviously it’s still not enough but we should give them credit for doing more then the previous government. Transit is a lot like social housing, there will never be enough for everyones demands, what we need to ensure is the money we do have is spent as wisely and efficient as possibly. If taxpayers see value for their money they’re more willing to let go of their hard earned money to assist.

  • Dawn Steele

    Really, Darcy, you actually know someone who doesn’t care whether they pay more or less taxes? (the people in those commercials who claim to like paying banking fees don’t count – they’re actors, and it’s just a joke).

    Do you skip the tax credit section when you fill out your tax return? Rip up tax receipts for your donations? Are you seriously calling every Canadian who owns an RRSP selfish?

    Sliding-scale taxes – e.g. income taxes – have an underlying rationale that society widely accepts as fair and reasonable (those who can afford it pay more). Same with property taxes. Extra luxury/sin taxes are only applied to non-necessities – no one has to pay them.

    No one rejoices over having to pay taxes, but most of us accept them as long as they’re fair.

    Arbitrarily punishing *some* people for doing the wrong thing when they have no choice because you’re not giving them any chance to do the right thing instead, and then dismissing them as selfish is a mindset that will ensure we make no progress on climate change, while reinforcing public perceptions that Greens don’t care about real people.

    Easy to sit in one’s Yaletown condo sneering at the Terrace construction worker in his pickup truck but are you going to pay the extra taxes to give them all Skytrains too?

    So please, feel free to contribute your thoughts on how to tackle these complexities, but don’t presume to edit my sentences for “accuracy” – I’m quite capable of doing that myself.

  • LP

    Thank you NRFM. Well said. So many like to pile on the Fed-Cons for many reasons, but your points are valid and should be acknowledged.

  • MB

    Paul Martin is the only PM in recent memory who had a specific agenda for cities. It is unfortunate that he never had a chance to implement it before Adscam and Layton took him down after what, 18 months?

    Harper, who’s been in power twice as long, does NOT have a plan for cities, but instead follows the age-old Canadian political tradition of talking lots / doing nothing for ages, then plop funds individual projects with no real coherence other than supplying the maximum political benefit irrespective of cost.

    It’s always fascinating to see that an absolute minority of Conservative expenditures so far respect and promote sustainability.

    We need to build a 21st Century economy that is much smarter than last century’s. If Harper was actually doing that, I’d be singing his praises instead of damning him.

  • Mike

    The carbon tax is revenue neutral, theres not going to be any further investment in alternatives and solutions to end oil consumption. We need cap and trade; something thats going to allow for higher investment in alternatives

  • Darcy McGee

    > Really, Darcy, you actually know
    > someone who doesn’t care whether they
    > pay more or less taxes?

    I certainly know people who accept the fact that they pay more or less taxes than others, and that taxes levied by a democratically elected government are a way of implementing policies defined by that democratically elected government.

    Taxation has become accepted as a way to fund social policies and directions: healthcare, social security, and unemployment insurance are all government policies paid for by taxes. They are all a fundamental part of what makes this country Canada.

    I know people who refuse to shop at the Mountain Equipment Co-op because as a co-op, they are taxed differently and not contributing to those programs at a level appropriate with their revenues compared to other private businesses.

    In this case, the democratically elected Campbell government has elected to pursue a social policy that forces those who consume carbon producing fossil fuels to pay for that consumption. The tax is applied equally and transparently.

    A vote for the NDP will be sure to get rid of it, which is strange…but that’s the solution.

    I for one support the carbon tax in ADDITION to a cap and trade controls. Then again I cycle almost 15km each way to work pretty much every day, and I did before the tax was in place. That’s a choice that I’ve made to help leave a better planet for my children.

    I’d like to see a downtown entry toll for private vehicles too, but I think that will be a while before it happens.

  • Dawn Steele

    Exactly, Darcy, it’s about the use of taxation as a social policy instrument – and you continue to miss my point:

    When you use taxes in this manner – i.e. as a disincentive for behaviour to achieve public policy goals, it only works if the individuals targeted have a choice. One can choose to stop smoking, turn out the lights or reduce garbage to avoid paying extra fees and taxes. It’s even easier if you add in supports and incentives like smoking cessation or recycling programs.

    But to the extent that many people – e.g. northern and rural residents, truck transporters – have no alternatives to avoid paying the carbon tax, it is punitive and unfair. And with the growing economic crises and unemployment facing many rural communities, such unfairness really resonates – it’s hardly the same as an oblivious urbanite choosing a $200 politically-correct sweater. Further, it won’t achieve the social policy objective if there is no support/ alternative to permit them to change, plus it deepens the urban/rural divide and breeds underlying social resentment against the broader “green” agenda.

    That was my point – that in order to be fair, generate crucial public buy-in and achieve the objective of reducing carbon footprints, every individual subject to this tax should have alternatives available that allow them to achieve tax neutrality by changing their behaviour. Those who choose not to change would then have to just pay the extra tax and shut up, with no legitimate beef to find public sympathy.

    Few would object to a fair, progressive, well-designed carbon tax as part of a comprehensive program supporting positive change, with no undue hardship imposed on any sub-group. Yes, you need hard caps and limits and consequences, but public buy-in is crucial, especially up-front when you are trying to overcome inertia and passive resistance to change.

    The devil is in the details and simply ignoring those details to flog a poorly-designed initiative because we support the principle may set us back further than doing nothing at all. For a start, the bitter split among “greens,” lost social capital and alienation of traditional NDP allies by backing them into a corner as a result of the “all or nothing” approach that’s been taken by a few thoughtless leaders can be expected to enormously hamper progress and collaboration on a host of serious environmental issues. Election campaigns are always an opportunity to educate the public to build support for change on key issues, but instead all they will hear this time are ugly shouting matches – and more people will be turned off than on to the greater cause.

  • LP

    Many people are concerned about the environment and climate change, however at some time in the future, there will be a tipping point and this will change.

    Without good thoughtful and fair policy, the public will eventually tune-out what they will come to believe as just more rhetoric from people and groups with certain agendas.

    Already, the tagline has moved from “global warming” to “climate change”. It’s hard to believe the earth is warming when we’re in a 10 year cycle of cooling. US-style fear mongering will only take you so far. See GW Bush for examples and know that many are already quite sick of Al Bore.

    Personally, I think there should be more of a top-down approach to get the waste out of the system before demanding jane and joe turn into treehugging hippies who live in their bio-diesel VW van.

    Without much effort – the very people who comment on this blog could come up with hundreds if not thousands of ways for government, business and industry to be more earth friendly, before jane and joe would have to do anything at all.

    That in itself would go a very long way to selling those eventual changes to the public, including so called carbon taxes.

    Some of my friends are already as green as they want to be, and are starting to say enough already. When enough people say the same thing, it will be very bad for this planet.

  • Dawn Steele

    I agree LP.

    My eyes were really opened at an event maybe 8 years ago which started with presentations to educate a random group of maybe 60 regular British Columbians on environental issues and then on building consensus on the need for change. For Part three they asked everyone to state what they’d be prepared to do as individuals. Almost without exception, the participants felt they were already doing enough and that someone else should make the sacrifices first.

    Cracking this nut is the central challenge in achieving progress on these issues and it requires all hands on deck – not muddied messages and mud-slinging.

  • LP


    Switching to civic politics, what I fear from Gregor and co., is their continued push to punish the Vancouver citizen before looking at other methods to make the city greener.

    What has come out of that green action team has been suggestions that are pretty much targeted at the individual and even include “shaming” or “intolerance” tactics.

    I find it disappointing and disgusted that “the greenies” have adopted the GW Bush mantra that “you’re either with us or against us”. Bullying is apparently okay to “save the environment”.

    That type of behaviour will eventually destroy the green movement, and it will be done by the very people who thought they were doing the right thing in the first place.

  • Dawn Steele

    I’m as frustrated as the next guy when someone driving a $50,000 luxury SUV sits there complaining about gas taxes. But after spending a lot of time learning about special education, I’m enormously sensitive to the ineffectiveness of punitive approaches.

    There is this rock solid approach used on children with special needs called “functional behaviour assessment.” It’s based on the principle that all behaviour serves a purpose for the individual. So you find out what they’re getting out of that behaviour and then provide an alternative method that gets them what they want in a more socially acceptable way.

    I suspect it’s an approach that could work on changing any challenging problem behaviour.

    It doesn’t mean you don’t have limits or consequences. But you need to be very sensitive in setting limits that the individual can see room to manouver and make choices within the sandbox you’ve defined as acceptable behaviour.

    When people feel they’re being pushed into a corner, denied any control or treated unfairly, they don’t tend to react positively, or rationally. If they’re comfortable with the paradigm, they will accept consequences and even punishment with surprising equanimity.

    Again, inspired by principles in education, I was thinking about some things that might be effective:

    – Self assessment/performance feedback: A website where you can go and calculate the size of your green footprint. No direct consequences, but when people start comparing scores and ribbing each other on FaceBook and other social situations, it will start sinking in that you may be the problem.

    – Rewards, public recognition: make people feel good about the sacrifices they make – get people feeling good about being green – get a little healthy competition going.

    I think if they do it like this, IMHO, it will pay off and build momentum – but what they really have to avoid is coming across as scary, punitive, holier than thou, judgmental, rigid, etc. – and this whole brouhaha has really raised people’s sensitivity meters on that, I feel.

  • Darcy McGee

    No Dawn, I haven’t missed your point…and you highlight it here:

    > One can choose to stop smoking, turn out the lights or reduce garbage to
    > avoid paying extra fees and taxes.

    One can choose to drive not at all, or less.

    You cite “truck transporters” as a group that can’t choose. Keep in mind that those who drive “for a living” are able to write off the cost of their fuel and vehicle maintenance. Government is thus taxing on the one hand and issuing a credit against those taxes on the other.

    If it were up to me, such people wouldn’t be able to write off fuel as a cost. It’s a cost that gets abused (think cab drivers who put the occasional tank in their personal vehicle and write the expense off) and artificially lowers the cost of goods and services.

    People can choose to drive less, or carpool. There are a great many alternatives.

  • Dawn Steele

    Darcy, perhaps you have never travelled outside Greater Vancouver to see how the rest of British Columbia lives?

    People have no choice but to drive in most of BC outside the Lower Mainland and other large communities. And no, they can’t all choose to live downtown on a nice bike route because then we wouldn’t have a provincial economy.

    People in service jobs that require them to work on site far from home every day of the week have no choice. People living in poorly-designed communities where the neighbours all drive in different directions can’t carpool. If you’re a contractor you can’t move house every time you get a new project. Salespeople who have to visit clients have no choice. Nor do delivery services. People whose jobs require them to carry around heavy tools and equipment all day instead of designer water bottles have no choice but to drive.

    Perhaps you have also never run your own business or filled out a tax return. Being able to “write off” or claim a tax credit for a cost only provides compensation for a small fraction of that cost. It is still, in the end, an extra cost that affects your bottom line and your ability to make a living. If a new cost is large enough relative to your profit margin, it can easily make the difference between profit and loss.

  • Darcy McGee

    Dawn, my family founded a town that makes most people’s definitions of small town BC look like a major metropolis. They still live there. I know how small town BC operates.

    In any case, from a study by the Brookins Institute:
    > And Germans living in low density areas travel by car about as much as
    > Americans living at population densities five times higher.

    Now…we are not America, but car use patterns in the U.S. and Canada are substantially similar. Car use could be reduced. It needs political will.

    And yes, I’ve run a business but that’s not relevant to the point. By essentially subsidizing the cost of transporting goods, governments are artificially lowering the real cost (both in dollars and in carbon emissions) of manufacturing goods, and consequently purchasing them. If the “real” cost were on the price tag, people’s purchasing habits would change.

    If more people bought locally, we might not have these hollowed out shells of towns that exist all throughout BC.

    It wouldn’t happen overnight, and that’s not the point. I simply don’t support giving people a tax write off for polluting. If you’re going to contribute to the destruction of the planet, I think you should pay the full freight.

  • Dawn Steele

    …so it’s OK to bankrupt and/or unfairly penalize some individuals who are already doing the best they can, given the limited options available to them to get from here to there?

    That comes right back to my original post: such attitudes – that it’s OK to screw individuals based on general principles about the greater good – do no credit to the cause of promoting positive change. It just creates an angry backlash against Greens and green movements and cause people to dig their heels in instead of focussing on what they need to do to support progress.

  • Nathanael

    “Even if we went with streetcars or Euro-style trams, the streets and roadways would still need improvement and upgrading.”

    Actually, after a certain point of transit use, many local roads can be pedestrianized. They then support (1) trams, (2) walking, and (3) local delivery. So you’re not supporting ‘roads’ any more, you’re supporting sidewalks and driveways.