GUEST COLUMN: Region backpedaling headlong to tax ruin

Taxpayers' association member speaks up about the use of public funds

A story about the future of cycling on the $220-million needed to complete cycling paths in the Capital Region is generating plenty of debate, especially among the struggling working poor, the unemployed and one-parent families.

The struggling business community is concerned about the impact on taxes. Here’s another viewpoint on some of the current mega-projects from a beleaguered taxpayer and a senior on fixed income.

While I enjoy an occasional spin, the idea of a lengthy commute to work or elsewhere is foreign to me. Like the vast majority of the public, I have no inclination to dress in spandex, develop a skinny butt, race through stop signs, or pound my testosterone-laced chest.

That said, I recognize cycling is generally associated with improved health and well-being.

Mind you, reports on overuse injuries to back and neck, sexual impotence, exposure to air pollution, weather limitations, long, impractical commutes or car collisions causing serious injury or death suggest there are downsides to covering the entire region in bike paths at great cost for a few thousand cyclists.

At this point, the embattled taxpayer is more than a little nervous about current and proposed projects and ballooning costs, and lack of fiscal restraint and oversight.

On March 15, Victoria councillors approved a staff recommendation to increase the budget for the new Johnson Street Bridge to $92.8 million, up $15.8 million from the $77 million calculated in June 2010.  While costs are shared amongst three levels of government, the City of Victoria taxpayer pays for any cost overruns.

On top of this, Greater Victoria homeowners are bracing to find out what the major increases will be to their annual property tax bills, now that the federal and provincial governments have recently committed their share of the $782-million cost of building sewage treatment infrastructure.

Residents in the seven invested municipalities of Victoria, Saanich, Oak Bay, Esquimalt, Langford, View Royal and Colwood will have to absorb the tax hikes until the project is completed in 2018. Of more concern is that local taxpayers will again get to pick up any cost overruns.

At an estimated cost of $950-million, a Light Rail Transit (LRT) system from downtown to Uptown and then to West Shore has been recommended by the Victoria Regional Rapid Transit Project (VRRTP) and endorsed by the B.C. Transit and Capital Regional District boards and councils in the affected municipalities. The estimated cost and the business case has been submitted for funding under the Provincial Transit Plan.

An alternative LRT view comes from the Capital Regional District Business and Residential Taxpayers Association (www.crdtaxpayers.com). They chronicle in detail the inflated ridership numbers, inaccurate cost projections and the ability of a small region of 360,000 people to pay for this. It’s unclear which taxpayer would pick up the cost overruns that seem to invariably accompany big projects.

These mega-projects are planned during the most turbulent economic period in several generations. The downturn has resulted in thousands of job losses, including hundreds in Greater Victoria.

During this period of restraint, the game plan should be to address only essential infrastructure and to make prudent decisions in a prioritized, disciplined fashion.

More importantly, let some of these projects play out and find out the real costs and tax implications.

Although city hall doesn’t want to release an itemized list to the public, in Victoria alone, there’s an estimated $500-million infrastructure deficit that should be the priority.

Capital city residents are already coping with significant power, water and other utility increases, something that seems to escape empire-building politicians and Capital Bike and Walk Society and Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition lobbyists. It’s time for taxpayers in the Capital to tell its several hundred politicians their limit has been reached.

In the meantime a cost-shared and user-pay system is worth looking at for the spandex crowd: an annual lottery, some corporate private fundraising, or the introduction of mandatory licensing to include a skills course.

Backpedal on this $220-million dream – based on inflated bike path usage numbers – and stretch it over 50 years.

Stan Bartlett is a retired journalist and a member of the Capital Regional District Business and Residential Taxpayers Association. He lives in Fairfield.

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