The HandyDART service made 1.3 million trips last year. RICHARD LAM / PNG
Public transit could receive a boost in the next B.C. budget, if the provincial government heeds the advice of an all-party finance committee.
The select standing committee on finance and government, which conducted public consultations across B.C., released a report this week with more than 100 recommendations for the 2020 budget, including six for transit and transportation.
In the interest of making transit more accessible for people with disabilities, the committee said the province should increase funding to expand HandyDART, a door-to-door shared ride service.
“(The committee) acknowledged the importance of HandyDART for increasing accessibility and supporting inclusion,” the report said.
Beth McKellar, co-chair of the HandyDART Riders’ Alliance, said the recommendation is important because the service is in high demand and desperately needs more funding, despite Metro Vancouver’s regional transit authority having added more service.
HandyDART’s ridership has been on the rise for the past five years, and delivered 1.3 million trips in 2018.
“We’re just a wee tiny blip on the radar, but I’m pleased this all came out and I’m hoping that they do the right thing. I always have that little bit of hope,” McKellar said.
The committee made a similar recommendation for the 2019 budget, calling for “increased and sustained” funding for HandyDART services.
Although funding was allocated in the last budget to B.C. Transit to expand bus and HandyDART services in four communities over three years, Metro Vancouver was left out, to the dismay of advocates and the region’s mayors.
“It was good that the Island got it, that B.C. Transit got it, but we need it a lot more over here,” said McKellar.
In recent years, TransLink’s Mayors’ Council has argued that the province should help pay for HandyDART because the majority of trips are related to health services, such as dialysis, and said there should be a long-term, sustainable funding model for the service.
The committee also recommended that the province work with local governments and transit authorities “to explore new pricing mechanisms to help make public transit more accessible for youth and low-income families.”
“We think this is an excellent recommendation and we urge the government to follow through on it,” said Viveca Ellis, a community organizer for #AllOnBoard.
#AllOnBoard has advocated for free transit for all children and youth up to and including 18 years old, and a sliding-scale monthly pass system based on income for all transit systems in B.C.
“We know that affordability is an important part of our current government’s mandate, and as communities and many, many community members have brought forward to us transit is not affordable for many British Columbians,”
The Mayors’ Council has also discussed free transit for youths, but believes the province needs to be involved on the funding side to offset fare revenue losses. Victoria will offer free transit to all youths who live in the city in a pilot project starting in September.
On the transit side the committee also recommended working with public and private operators to address gaps in regional transportation services — particularly in rural and remote areas — and prioritizing faster deployment of electric buses in cities, including expensive charging infrastructure.
In the area of active transportation, the committee said the province should invest in walking and biking infrastructure, education and promotion, as well as eliminate provincial sales tax on electric bicycles.
In a statement the Ministry of Finance said it is “in the process of reviewing the report in detail and considers all proposals, including recommendations brought forward by this committee, during the yearly budget process.”
Two initiatives that could make transit Metro Vancouver more accessible and affordable were missing from Tuesday’s provincial budget.
The region’s mayors have been advocating for funding for HandyDART, the door-to-door shared-ride service for people with disabilities, and a break on transit fares for people with low incomes and youths.
“We would have liked to have seen those programs included in this year’s budget,” said New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Coté, who chairs the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation.
For the past couple of years, both the council and TransLink, the regional transportation authority, have argued that the provincial government should help pay for HandyDART.
However, Coté said the majority of HandyDART trips are related to health services, such as dialysis or specialist appointments, and seeing some investment from the Ministry of Health would make sense.
“We think there is an argument to be made that there should be better support through the provincial government, just like the provincial government mainly funds those services throughout other parts of the province,” he said.
“That’s been a longstanding issue that the Mayors’ Council and TransLink have advocated for better support there.”
The budget did include some extra money for transit — and HandyDART — improvements, but for communities outside Metro Vancouver. It adds $21 million over three years for B.C. Transit to expand bus services in 30 urban and rural communities and make improvements to help seniors and people with disabilities.
LISTEN: This week on the In The House podcast, Mike Smyth and Rob Shaw discuss the 2019 BC NDP government budget – was it a prudent NDP spending plan or a missed opportunity to get its agenda done?
We also discuss the CleanBC plan, BC Green leader Andrew Weaver’s budget response and the BC Liberals struggling to define themselves within the budget debate.
A spokesperson for the HandyDART Riders Alliance could not be reached for comment, but on social media shortly after the budget was released on Tuesday, the group called the lack of specific funding for HandyDART “disappointing.”
Coté said he hopes increasing demand for HandyDART service will prompt more serious conversations with the province about a long-term, sustainable funding model so that TransLink can continue to provide the service.
Providing discounted transit passes for people with low incomes and free transit for youths under the age of 18 has been discussed around the Mayors’ Council table, Coté said, and such initiatives have been adopted in other major cities.
“I think the Mayors’ Council is very interested in the idea, but it’s something we strongly feel would be most appropriately funded through a provincial poverty reduction strategy,” Coté said.
Such a strategy was outlined in the budget, but details about the specific programs therein were not released. It’s expected that the public will hear more in the coming weeks.
Viveca Ellis, campaign organizer for #AllOnBoard, has been lobbying for a regional plan and provincial funding for making transit affordable and accessible for all people in the region.
“In the budget documents and the information that we have right now, we didn’t see anything specifically related to transit affordability and accessibility to transit for low-income people in the TransLink service region or any other region,” Ellis said.
“We’re looking forward to the release of the poverty reduction plan and seeing what will be addressed there in terms of affordable transit.”
Coté said the Mayors’ Council will move forward by formalizing their position on reducing transit fees for low-income earners and youths this spring.
“We do expect continued discussions on that regard there and hopefully future inclusion in budgets in coming years,” he said.
The budget did follow through on promised funding for major transportation infrastructure projects, including the Broadway subway line, for which $1.12 billion has been allocated over the next three years. The total cost of that project is $2.83 billion.
B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition organizer Trish Garner, pictured in 2012, calls the province’s $50 increase to monthly income and disability assistance rates ‘a drop in the ocean’ that still keeps rates ‘shockingly low.’ Arlen Redekop / PNG files
A boost to assistance rates are among the initiatives in Carole James’s latest budget intended to ease the financial burden faced by hundreds of thousands of B.C. residents who live in poverty.
But the financial measures, which come in advance of an anticipated poverty reduction plan slated for a March release, received muted reaction from some anti-poverty proponents.
In her budget speech, the finance minister said B.C. is thriving, with a balanced budget and a strong credit rating.
“But we will never have a truly prosperous province unless everyone in British Columbia can share in that prosperity,” James said. Often, all it takes to change a person’s life is an opportunity paired with a hand up, she said.
The most obvious hand up for those living in poverty that James’s government included in its latest financial plan is a $50 increase to monthly income and disability assistance rates. The government increased those same rates by $100 two years ago, bringing the total bump in the last three years to $150. Before that, a decade had passed without any increase at all.
Trish Garner, a community organizer with the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition, called the $50 increase “a drop in the ocean” that still keeps rates “shockingly low.” She said her organization was looking for an increase of at least $200 this year.
The latest increase places income assistance for a single employable person at $760 per month — less than 50 per cent of the poverty line, Garner said. Those on disability assistance will see their rates rise to $1,183. The increases come with a $44-million price tag over three years, according to the fiscal plan.
B.C. is the only province in Canada that does not have a poverty reduction plan, and it also has the highest rate of poverty for children in Canada, according to Shane Simpson, the minister of social development and poverty reduction.
No specific dollar figure for his anticipated poverty plan was included in the budget, but James said the budget did include some initiatives that would form part of the plan. She pointed in particular at a new “child opportunity benefit” that will put as much as $3,400 a year into the hands of parents who are raising children.
Garner said the child benefit gets B.C. caught up to other provinces by extending support for children up to their 18th year and will make “a huge difference.”
Meanwhile, James said more needs to be done to make income and disability assistance more accessible. Included in her budget is $26 million to remove barriers to financial support.
The budget includes $76 million to help put another 200 people in need into modular homes, and organizations that run rent banks will see funding for short-term, low-or-no interest loans to tenants who can’t pay their rent.
The government has said it wants to lift 140,000 people above the poverty line, including half of the 100,000 children who are impoverished, by 2024.
Finance Minister Carole James arrives to deliver the budget speech as she waves to people in the gallery at the legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday, February 19, 2018. CHAD HIPOLITO / THE CANADIAN PRESS
The B.C. NDP government’s second budget focused on tax breaks and benefits for people with children, students and businesses, and investments in clean energy and climate initiatives. Here’s a brief summary of how British Columbians will be affected.
The budget didn’t make any large strides toward $10-a-day child care beyond continuing funding for the government’s 2018 child care plan into 2021/2022 and increasing it by $9 million a year. The bigger news was the introduction of a B.C. Child Opportunity Benefit to replace the early childhood tax benefit, which currently provides families with up to $660 a year per child under the age of six.
The new benefit, which begins in October 2020, will provide families with one child up to $1,600 a year, with two children up to $2,600 a year and with three children up to $3,400 a year. Instead of ending at six years of age, the benefit will be paid until the child is 18.
Good news for British Columbians with student loans — no more interest payments. As of Tuesday, all B.C. student loans will stop accumulating interest, saving someone with $11,700 in provincial student loans $2,300 over the 10-year repayment period. This will cost the government $318 million.
The public education system will get a boost, with $2.7 billion set aside over three years to maintain, replace, renovate or expand facilities. There will also be $550 million invested to hire new teachers and special education assistants, and improve classrooms.
Community organizations will be provided with funding to operate rent banks to provide short-term loans with little or no interest to low-income tenants who can’t pay their rent because of a financial crisis. It will cost $10 million and be funded through the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction.
The implementation of a B.C.-wide rent bank system for low-income people was one of 23 recommendations delivered late last year from the Rental Housing Task Force struck by the B.C. government.
The climate action tax credit will be increased in 2019, 2020 and 2021. Starting July 1, the maximum credit will go up by 14 per centfor adults and children, meaning low- and middle-income families of four will receive up to $400 for this year.
More than $107 million in operating funding will provide incentives for battery-electric and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (up to $6,000), incentives for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, incentives for home charging stations, as well as other programs.
Pharmacare program will be expanded with an additional $42 million to cover more drugs, including those for diabetes, asthma and hypertension. An additional $30 million will be invested in tackling the drug overdose crisis, bringing the total investment since 2017 to $608 million. Mental health programs focused on prevention and early intervention for children, youth and young adults will be funded to the tune of $74 million.
As promised previously, Medical Services Plan premiums will be fully eliminated on Jan. 1, 2020, saving families up to $1,800 per year.
Income and disability assistance rates will be increased by a $50 a month, a total increase of $150 a month (or $1,800 a year) since the 2017 budget update. Before 2017, the rates had not been increased for a decade. This will cost an extra $44 million over three years.
A homelessness plan will invest $76 million in land acquisition and services to build 200 more modular homes, bringing the total to 2,200 units.
The B.C. government’s new budget will probably look a lot like its old budget. That is deliberate, says Finance Minister Carole James, because the governing New Democratic Party’s priorities haven’t changed: affordable housing, child care and climate change.
“What we’re looking at is budget 2019 basically building on what we did in budget 2018,” James said of the budget she’ll deliver on Tuesday.
“We started off with a shift in approach from the previous government, where they really told people you either had to have a strong economy or investments in people. It was either-or. Our budget really said we need both.”
There’s another reason for the similarities between this year and last year: The NDP government’s biggest promises on affordable housing and daycare are 10-year visions that aren’t even close to fruition. Each year, James said, she’ll put aside more money to try to get closer to specific election promises like $10-a-day child care.
“Young families haven’t had a lot of hope in British Columbia, in our urban centres in particular,” said James. “They’ve seen their costs rise and struggled to get by, whether it be on housing or child care. So we’re really focused on how we can give back hope to those families.”
There will be one major difference, however. Most of the revenue-generating measures the NDP promised in the 2017 election — tax increases on high-income earners, corporations, luxury homes and the increased carbon tax — have already been enacted. James might have to curtail some spending ambitions unless she can find new sources of cash for the provincial treasury.
Despite a healthy surplus, the province’s fiscal security is at risk with the financial meltdown at the Insurance Corp. of B.C. — where losses could reach $2.5 billion over two years — and a $1-billion taxpayer bailout on deferral accounts at B.C. Hydro.
“ICBC and B.C. Hydro have been a huge challenge to the budget, a huge challenge to families and the public when it comes to the dollars they’ve had to take on for the messes left us,” said James.
“But it’s a big issue and I continue to be concerned. It’s not a piece I feel comfortable about. We’re headed in the right direction and making changes we need to occur. But there’s a cost to that.”
Last year, Postmedia spoke with several people about what they were hoping to see in the February 2018 budget, including a prospective homebuyer, a renter, a mother and a businessman.
We’ve caught up with those people to find out if the improvements they had hoped for in 2018 happened — as well as their wish lists for the NDP’s second full budget on Tuesday.
LISTEN: Mike Smyth and Rob Shaw answer all the important questions raised by the B.C. NDP government’s throne speech. Why all the populist measures? Can the B.C. government really act on changing your cellphone bill? What do allies and critics think of the speech? Smyth and Shaw also talk about Liberal MLA Linda Reid having to resign her assistant deputy speaker’s job and Premier John Horgan resisting calls for a public inquiry into money laundering.
The main theme of the NDP’s throne speech on Feb. 12 was affordability, and the government focused on several areas that include tackling expensive ferry fares, stopping mass ticket-buying by scalpers and taming sky-high cellphone bills. But the speech offered little new on the main reason B.C. is expensive: the cost of homes.
Housing affordability was a key campaign promise when the NDP was elected in 2017. But to help renters, the throne speech made only a general promise to “speed up much-needed rental housing” and a vague prediction that rock-bottom vacancy rates would rise.
Last year at this time, Liam McClure, of the Vancouver Renters Union, hoped the 2018 budget would include specific measures, such as a rent freeze, improved tenant rights language to deal with issues such as renovictions, and the creation of more social housing.
But renters are still waiting for significant action.
“We just haven’t seen the movement in the last year that we were hoping for, and it has been a bit of a disappointment,” McClure said.
“I think at the provincial level there hasn’t been as much energy as we’ve seen at the municipal level in terms of putting forward policies and solutions for some of the problems we are seeing.”
Last fall, the government accepted a Rental Housing Task Force recommendation to keep 2019 rental increases by landlords to the rate of inflation (2.5 per cent), rather than the 4.5 per cent hike recommended by the residential tenancy branch. This was helpful to renters, McClure said.
But the task force, which consists of three MLAs appointed last April by the premier, stopped short of backing a key idea that many tenants’ advocates, including McClure, believe is important: so-called vacancy control, which would tie rent controls to the unit, not the tenant, to stop a landlord from jacking up the rent when a new person moves in. Landlords were happy this policy was not endorsed, saying it gives them more money to invest in rental stock.
The task force’s top recommendation was to end renovictions — when landlords evict long-term tenants to renovate and then find new residents at higher rents. But McClure said the suggested changes don’t go far enough, and he would like to see stronger language in this year’s budget.
“I don’t have my hopes up, but I’m interested in hearing what they are going to do around ending renoviction because we haven’t had enough movement,” he said.
He would also like the budget to include funding for more social housing and non-market homes for low-income families and individuals.
Last year, the government introduced a speculation tax and a tax surcharge on homes valued at more than $3 million, part of a 10-year plan to help build up to 114,000 new affordable homes.
What is different going into this year’s budget is that home prices are falling, which has benefited Jodi Harris — who just bought a townhouse in Langley after trying to get into the real estate market for the past 18 months.
The lower prices allowed her to remain in Metro Vancouver, as the frustrated woman had been house hunting in areas like the Okanagan, which has slightly lower real estate prices. “I had prepared to leave the Lower Mainland. I really didn’t see my housing prospects changing,” Harris said.
She believes the province’s speculation tax played a role in dropping home values. “I think the frenzy around purchasing is starting to diminish.”
But she stresses the provincial government should not let its guard down because she knows many young professionals still struggling to buy their first home. Even as a nurse practitioner at Royal Columbian Hospital, and making a higher-than-average salary, she had extreme challenges buying a modest home.
“I don’t think any millennial has illusions of grandeur, that they will walk into (buying) a detached home,” she said. “I don’t know how everyone can be so short-sighted with this problem. You need young people to power the economy.”
Jock Finlayson, of the B.C. Business Council, said he believes the speculation tax has played a role in lowering prices for large homes and high-end condos, but he believes the federal government’s move to “tighten up mortgage rules coupled with higher borrowing costs has really been the key to the broader softening of the market.”
James says the speculation tax is just one element in her government’s 30-point housing plan. She promised to continue to boost the housing supply, although she offered no specifics. She also promised to improve transparency around home ownership and to create a condo flipping registry.
“I’m feeling cautiously optimistic in looking at the housing market right now. We’re seeing some shifts in all types of housing, a moderating of prices in detached homes, townhomes and condos. That’s really critical,” she said.
Child care: the $10 challenge
Tamara Herman put her son’s name on multiple waiting lists for licensed child care more than four years ago, before the boy was born, and he still does not have a spot in a daycare.
Even though the NDP promised universal $10-a-day child care when the party was elected in 2017, Herman is patient because she believes this government is moving toward positive change, albeit slowly.
“Our situation hasn’t changed because it is going to take many years to repair a completely broken child care system,” said Herman, whose 3½-year-old son, Emil Porter, is in the care of a nanny collective.
“It’s a little late for us personally, but I’m encouraged to see that progress is being made in general on child care … for the first time in many years.”
After the throne speech, Premier John Horgan said this year’s plan will likely include the continued development of the government’s fee-reduction subsidies of up to $350 a month and pilot projects of the $10-a-day model.
Herman is happy the NDP is investigating the $10 model, arguing it puts families back to work and therefore reduces poverty, but is “less enthusiastic” about the fee- reduction subsidies. “Instead of subsidizing individual parents, I’d rather see them investing in building more child cares and making it a fair industry for people who work in the field.”
Opponents of the universal $10 model argue it will be too expensive and will unnecessarily subsidize middle- and high-income families who can afford to pay for their own child care.
However, Sharon Gregson, with the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of B.C. which has long lobbied for the $10 plan, hopes Tuesday’s budget will fund an expansion of the prototypes. She would also like the budget to include moving child care out of the Ministry of Children and Family Development and into the Education Ministry to become better aligned with the school system. She also wants a pledge of $200 million to build more licensed spaces and to train more workers.
“There has been more positive action on child care in the last 10 months than in the preceding 16 years,” Gregson said.
“(But) there’s still lots to do and it’s not perfect. Families need much more access to licensed spaces — especially non-traditional hours and in rural and remote communities — and early childhood educators need better wages.”
James said the government has 53 sites in B.C. testing the $10 plan, and that residents must wait for the government to finish designing its new child care plan to ensure quality, space and accessibility.
“It’s a 10-year program and we’re only going into year 2,” the finance minister said. “We have a review program going on on the prototypes for $10-a-day to make sure we see how they went and successes, and are there any pieces that need to be adjusted. And so that will be part of the work over the next year.”
She added that child care is the topic that most residents raise with her. “Despite the speculation tax and housing measures, it’s probably the biggest piece I get stopped by families to tell me the biggest change it’s made for them.”
The fiscal reality: taxes and spending
The NDP has now enacted most of the new taxes it had promised, including a one per cent hike to the corporate income tax rate, an income tax increase for those who earn more than $150,000, and those taxes on high-end and empty homes.
But besides the woes at ICBC and BC Hydro, though, there is mounting financial pressure on the NDP because the cooling housing market has reduced property transfer fees.
“There are some new revenue sources but that’s being chipped away by the decline in (home) sales, and therefore property transfers. So I’ll be looking to see how does the arithmetic on all that add up,” the B.C. Business Council’s Finlayson said when asked about budget finances.
“We are not going into the (budget) lockup assuming there’s going to be a lot of tax changes. Sometimes you are surprised.”
If there are no new taxes, it’s not clear where the NDP will get more revenue to fund new ideas or the growth of big-ticket programs.
There is good news for the province’s bottom line, though, in that the economy is still strong, the carbon tax is set to rise from $35/tonne to $40/tonne on April 1, and the previous Liberal government’s $500-million Prosperity Fund remains available.
Finlayson would like to see a small reduction in one of the NDP’s taxes, arguing the tax bracket for higher income taxes should rise from $150,000 to $250,000, to align with policies in Alberta and Ontario. He also wishes for some type of relief for the industries that are the most affected by the increasing carbon tax.
Still, Finlayson anticipates James will produce a balanced operating budget. He would like to see a slight increase on the capital projects side — but wants B.C.’s current debt-to-GDP ratio of 14 per cent to stay below 20 per cent so that the province can hold on to its triple-A rating.
“We think there is a lot of unmet need for capital, both maintenance and to build new bridges and tunnels and infrastructure,” he said.
The throne speech was silent, he said, on attracting business investment in B.C. “To me that sends a signal that the budget won’t have much around building the economy. Because that has not been much of a major focus of this government. Their agenda has been more social and environmental.”
Climate change, poverty reduction and other priorities
There are other items that are expected to be crucial elements in Tuesday’s budget.
Climate change, once dominated by discussion of the carbon tax, has taken on a new face with the NDP’s CleanBC plan. It is an aggressive proposal to increase electricity use across the province and reduce fossil fuel pollution from cars, homes and businesses. The budget is expected to lay out incentives for items such as heat pumps and electric vehicles.
Other issues that could be touched on in the budget include tackling money laundering, although the premier has deflected calls for a public inquiry; potential costs associated with the promise of historic legislation to enshrine into law the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; and past promises to boost staffing levels in seniors’ care homes and reform the annual school funding formula.
The throne speech did pledge to roll out a poverty reduction strategy, after the government initially promised to do so last year. That could come with a hefty price tag.
“Certainly the throne speech is a roadmap, the aspirational road map for the government for the year ahead,” Horgan told reporters after the speech.
“The budget will be where you will find the resources, the funds, and the initiatives that we talked about. When we brought forward legislation on the poverty reduction plan, and when we brought forward our CleanBC plan, it was with the view of funding those initiatives in the coming budget. And I know Carole James is very excited to tell you about that herself (on Tuesday).”
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