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Budget 2024: Where’s the money for transit, schools and infrastructure, critics ask

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Some B.C. mayors are upset at lack of major funding boosts for transit and infrastructure, but NDP drops hints that’s still coming

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The B.C. NDP’s 2024 budget falls short when it comes to spending on public transit, new schools and infrastructure to support new housing, which are needed to keep up with the province’s growing population, critics say.

\The budget did not include a financial lifeline for TransLink, which Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West said could lead to drastic service cuts.

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“To my knowledge and to the knowledge of the folks at TransLink there was nothing in the budget as it relates to public transit in Metro Vancouver,” said West, who chairs the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation.

West said TransLink only has two weeks before it sets its service plan for the year ahead and without a significant cash injection from the provincial government, it will be impossible to maintain current service levels.

West said TransLink’s services are frozen at 2019 levels despite a population growth of 200,000 people in the region since that time. As a result, commuters are often unable to get on overcrowded buses or SkyTrain cars, problems West said will only get worse without financial help from the province.

“We have been shouting this from the rooftops for several months, if not a year,” he said.

Asked about these concerns, Premier David Eby said: “Mayor West knows it’s not correct that there is no money in the budget for TransLink.”

Eby, speaking during an availability session in Vancouver, said the funding amount for the coming fiscal is still being negotiated between Transportation Minister Rob Fleming and TransLink mayors.

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Eby noted the B.C. NDP government bailed out TransLink to the tune of nearly half a billion dollars in emergency funding last year to offset the financial impacts of reduced ridership during the pandemic.

B.C. Transit, which operates transit services outside of the Lower Mainland, will get $248 million in capital funding over three years to add more zero-emission buses and build new facilities to house more buses, and $28 million in addition over three years to expand service and hours in priority communities.

That’s not good enough, B.C. Green Leader Sonia Furstenau said Thursday, visibly angry at the lack of major spending on reliable public transit, which is non-existent in some rural and remote communities.

“One of the ways (the government) could reduce immediately for a lot of people monthly expenses that can be in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, is to ensure that every community in this province has access to reliable affordable public transit,” she said. “So that people have the choice not to buy a car or not to have to pay for gas for that car every single day when they commute to work.”

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The budget was also thin on announcements about new schools, despite concerns about school overcrowding, especially in the Surrey school district.

Surrey school board vice-chair Gary Tymoschuk said he’s “holding his breath” that additional schools could be announced next month.

“Traditionally the provincial government has not handed out the capital side of the budget until about the second week of March,” he said.

Rapidly increasing student enrolment in Surrey, B.C.’s largest school district with 82,000 students, means thousands of students are learning in 375 portables across the district.

The school district is seeking 10 new schools in addition to the 16 schools already funded, Tymoschuk said.

Asked about whether the budget ignores the calls for more schools in Surrey, Finance Minister Katrine Conroy pointed to two-storey modular buildings being constructed at three schools that have bathrooms, hallways and space for 16 classrooms and could be ready as soon as this September.

Conroy was also asked about the lack of funding for a new school in Vancouver’s Olympic Village, which parents have been asking for. She hinted a new school is coming, saying: “They’ll be happy to see an announcement in the coming weeks.”

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That fuelled speculation that Eby deliberately left out some major projects with the intent of announcing them in communities closer to the Oct. 19 election. The budget sets aside $3.9 billion in contingency funds this year that could be used to pay for additional projects.

Asked if he suspects Eby held back TransLink funding to save it for a campaign announcement, West said: “The need in our region is now. I don’t think we should be taking these core basic services that people need to be able to live their lives and turning it into a political football or an election tactic.”

Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley said he was disappointed there wasn’t any new funding for the infrastructure needed to support the massive housing boom the B.C. NDP envisions through new legislation that will force municipalities to approve multi-family homes in residential neighbourhoods and high rises near transit hubs.

“The government is supposedly in build, build, build mode but nothing for TransLink or other critical infrastructure needs,” Hurley said.

West said city engineers are warning that aging sewer and water systems will not be able to handle higher-density neighbourhoods.

“If these utilities are not upgraded to handle the additional capacity being generated by provinces plans and legislation around housing, the housing ain’t going to happen,” West said.

Eby said the government is working with B.C. mayors to address their concerns about infrastructure.

“We have been pushing hard with the federal government around, frankly, their absence from traditional infrastructure funding envelopes that they have provided for a long time,” he said. “It’s a big problem.”

kderosa@postmedia.com

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