Commentary: Vancouver is pricey and it’s about to get a whole lot pricier

 A billion here, a billion there, it adds up. That’s the problem with shopping lists.

They start out with milk and bread and then everyone else in the family adds something on and suddenly that trip to the local supermarket is a full-fledged shopping frenzy.

The municipalities that make up Metro Vancouver are facing the same predicament as they try to choose between the bare necessities, luxuries and how you’re going to pay for it all.

But who’s actually keeping an eye on the tab?

By spacing announcements over future spending plans local councils, TransLink, Metro Vancouver and the provincial government may be hoping no one is, since the overall sticker shock will be a shock.

So how much will local ratepayers actually be on the hook for after all these various entities get their priorities scanned at the till?

First, each of Metro Vancouver’s 24 communities has its own needs and while it’s difficult to guess what the future spending plans of any municipality might be five years from now, it is possible to look back and reach some conclusions about past fiscal prudence and what that might mean for ratepayers in the future.

One case: according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, between 2000 and 2011, population growth in Vancouver was 15 per cent, but inflation-adjusted spending increased by 50 per cent.

Residents of White Rock can peek a bit into the future too. In June, White Rock announced plans to purchase the municipality’s water system from the City of Edmonton-owned Epcor, even though the system isn’t for sale and no one is saying what it might cost if Epcor was willing to part with it.

All of this was decided by White Rock council behind closed doors. The report that council based its decision on during their in camera meeting also remains confidential.

Read: the people who might end up having to pay for the acquisition don’t even know the business plan on which the decision to pry open their wallets was made.

Then there’s TransLink. The regional transportation authority has its hands out for $23 billion over the next 30 years, which is divided between $5 billion for keeping the existing system operational and another $18 billion for priorities the authority has identified including rapid transit in Surrey and Vancouver, a new Pattullo Bridge and upgrades to the Expo SkyTrain line.

Meanwhile Metro Vancouver has announced that local residents can expect utility fee hikes of 23 per cent over the next five years to pay for a number of regional infrastructure projects.

They include the $800 million Seymour-Capilano filtration project, Coquitlam’s $100 million ultraviolet disinfection facility, a pair of underground tunnels to transport filtered water to Surrey, and a second garbage incinerator whose price tag will likely be well north of half a billion dollars.

Then there’s the provincial government. Last March, the B.C. government released its five preferred options for replacing the George Massey Tunnel.

Keep in mind that the last time the B.C. government got involved in regional infrastructure the tab came in at $3.4 billion to replace the Port Mann bridge and drivers ended up with a $3.00 per crossing toll. Commuters will also remember how well that investment stood up to the first sign of inclement weather.

So expect a price tag that ends in billion for any of the options to address the Massey Tunnel’s future. Chances are there will be a toll as well.

Even this spending can’t be considered exhaustive. There’s still the cost of building and operating new schools, numerous infrastructure projects that are underway, and the unforeseen. Ask Calgary about the unforeseen.

While some of these projects may be sold to the public as “self-supported” that’s just political-speak for “you’re still picking up the tab.” Whether it’s through tolls or tipping fees, they’re just euphemisms for picking your pocket.

Local governments are also counting on the public to have become numb to numbers that end in billion. So consider that TransLink’s proposed spending amounts to $9,200 for every man, woman and child in the Lower Mainland today.

With what’s on the table right now, proposed infrastructure spending in Metro Vancouver will likely hit $30 billion. It’s a sum that needs to be seen in the context of the fact that Vancouver is already the most expensive city to live in Canada.

 

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC. www.integritybc.ca