EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first part in a series leading up to Surrey’s Oct. 20 election. Are there questions about the Surrey election you want answered? Let us know by commenting below or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As political debate rages on about whether light rail transit or SkyTrain should be built in this city, an urban studies expert warns of what could happen if the Surrey light rail project is halted.
“The risks of changing midstream is a huge political risk, there’s a huge risk of delay,” said Peter Hall, director of SFU’s Urban Studies Program, who specializes in transportation, geography and economic development. “Last-minute political interference is typically very dangerous.”
Hall said if it’s a bad project and people have good reason to oppose it, then “this is the way we stop things in a democracy. I don’t want to say people should or shouldn’t.”
But, he said at the very least, a delay should be expected.
“Will the Mayors’ Council get behind such a big change in a plan that’s been re-endorsed and all the rest of it? There’s huge political risk of a delay. And when’s the window going to open again?” Hall said.
“The Liberals have got an election next year, the provincial government has one the year after. So you’re probably pushed off any serious alignment for another three years, then they’ve got a year left in their term at the civic level. You’re wasting a lot of planning time. Perhaps the province has some SkyTrain plans, but within the City of Surrey you’re basically wasting a couple of years, perhaps longer, of local planning time, they may have even started on land assembly.
“If you are going to overturn the LRT, then this is part of the cost of expressing our will,” he added.
Hall said it’s possible that a strong message from Surrey could push higher levels of government to get on board, not wanting to jeopardize its chances with voters there, “but there would at least be a delay before you get the federal government to be sure. Set that all aside – there’s the planning process that’s already well underway. I’m sure there’s been a lot of planning going on in Surrey to do the LRT.”
Indeed, the City of Surrey has started early works projects, funded through the federal Public Transit Infrastructure Fund program, secured in 2016 for Phase 1 of the 10-Year Investment Plan, which includes early works for the $1.65-billion, 10.5-kilometre Surrey-Newton-Guildford LRT project. Approximately $20 million worth of projects will be led by the city and early works already underway include relocating a 104th Avenue feeder water main and storm sewer, as well as replacement of the Bear Creek Bridge.
Hall pointed to a Canadian example of a stalled transit project: The Scarborough extension of the subway in Toronto.
“There was a proposal to add more stations and extend that Scarborough line, which has never been a very successful line anyway. Then they went back and had a metro planning process, and they were saying actually the way to do this is rather to have a light rail system. That was the city sort of saying to the province, ‘No, we’d actually prefer light rail instead of more of this subway that doesn’t work very well.’ Then the light rail itself got very political.”
Hall said things were moving toward an agreement on light rail there, then Doug Ford was elected as Ontario’s Premier earlier this year and the plan flipped once more.
“He said, ‘No light rail, I’m going to have a subway. There’s a lot of backwards and forward going on there,” Hall explained.
In making that announcement, Ford noted the original subway plan was “fully funded by the feds, the province and the city.”
Hall stressed it takes a really long time to plan these massive projects.
“If you think about all the infrastructure that gets built in our cities, some theorists talk about a window of opportunity, or planets are aligned, both need that long-term planning and need a period in which politicians are in alignment, funding is in place and there isn’t something that disrupts it.”
Hall pointed to the Evergreen SkyTrain line in Metro Vancouver. “The Evergreen was what everybody wanted, the region agreed it was going to be the priority. The planets aligned, and political will was there to do the airport instead.”
While he said overall the line has been successful, there were “some mistakes made,” such as platforms that were too short.
“These things are hard to do. You need to have a lot of things in place before these projects can be built and that’s the danger with what’s happening in Surrey. The planets are pretty much aligned – we’ve had several rounds of the Mayors’ Council saying we support this thing, federal and provincial money is starting to get in place, quite far advanced in planning.”
Surrey’s mayoral candidates continue to debate the technologies and whether the funds could actually be transferred.
While Surrey First mayoral candidate Tom Gill agrees with Hall, former mayor Doug McCallum rejected the notion that scrapping LRT would cause a delay.
“LRT is not what the people want,” said McCallum, who, along with his Safe Surrey Coalition, is calling for an immediate halt on the project in favour of SkyTrain extension to Langley.
McCallum said he didn’t oppose the technology in the 2014 election because people in the community weren’t voicing vehement opposition at the time.
“Back then I wasn’t aware,” said McCallum. “TransLink said they’d done consulting and the public wanted light rail.”
According to McCallum, the transit authority pitched light rail twice during his years as TransLink chair, assuring the region’s mayors they had consulted the public and that it was supported. He said both times, in the case of the Canada and Evergreen SkyTrain lines, the mayors halted the light rail plan in favour of SkyTrain due to public opposition.
“It needs to be what the residents want, not what TransLink wants. It’s not something that should be imposed upon the public,” McCallum added.
“When CEOs say we’ve gone too far with the project, well there was another huge project that got started and cancelled. That’s the Massey Tunnel. So for anyone to say things can’t get cancelled and a different system put in? I actually think it will be sped up,” said McCallum, in response to TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond saying the “train has left the station” on switching technologies at this point.
“We don’t have to do a design process again,” McCallum said. “We’re just extending a line. Design work is done, it’s sitting in an office somewhere. The only next step that has to be done is to take that design and fit it onto the route.
“If we build SkyTrain on Fraser Highway, if it’s practical and we can get the workers and so forth, we can build it around the clock and it can be done quickly, and we’ve seen that can be done with the Canada Line, which came in on budget and on time.”
Gill disagrees. He said he worries the funding will vanish if the LRT project comes to a screeching halt. “The city has not been able to realize any significant infrastructure project from the provincial or federal governments, plus the region, since the Expo Line,” said Gill.
“I think there’s a high risk these dollars may not come back to our city, and we’ve been working on this for 10 years. The community needs to understand that the business case as it relates to SkyTrain would likely be unfunded from the provincial and federal government.”
Together, the provincial and federal government are investing $3 billion to Surrey’s LRT and Vancouver’s Broadway project, which were officially launched on Sept. 4.
The feds will contribute $1.37 billion to the two projects, the province will kick in $1.82 billion and TransLink, the City of Vancouver and the City of Surrey will contribute $1.23 billion. The Surrey LRT share includes $483.8 million, $1.12 billion as the region and TransLink’s share, in addition to the $43 million previously approved in phase one.
While Gill says SkyTrain would cost $1 billion more, and that “the additional money is simply not available,” McCallum argues his plan could be done within the existing budget, due to 30 to 40 per cent of the SkyTrain line being done at ground level. But for Gill, the choice is simple.
“The choice is to build LRT or build nothing at all.”
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Surrey to “officially launch” the project in early September, he spoke to RED FM about what he would do, if a newly elected Surrey council changed gears.
Asked if the funding would go back to Ottawa, Trudeau said “no” and that his visit locked in the plan endorsed by the region’s mayors.
“Today, we are moving forward with the Surrey LRT regardless of the outcome of the next election – municipal election – that money is flowing.”
What if a new council decided to go for SkyTrain instead?
“They won’t be able to because the money is already committed and this project is moving ahead now,” stated Trudeau earlier this month, although he said there would be “further discussions.”
“That’s what the local community decided and that’s what we are supporting.”
A variety of other parties running in the election have taken stances on transit in Surrey. The “left-leaning’ Proudly Surrey slate led by mayoral candidate Pauline Greaves says if elected, the team will honour the existing LRT contracts with the federal and provincial governments in addition to calling for a “South Fraser” transit authority.
The “non-traditional” People First Surrey party’s website states the slate is against LRT and calls for a SkyTrain and bus network instead.
Former Surrey First councillor turned mayoral candidate Bruce Hayne, with his Integrity Now slate, said the Guildford-to-Newton line is “likely too far down the road to change” but that for phase two, more consultation and analysis is needed to determine the best technology.
Progressive Sustainable Surrey mayoral candidate Imtiaz Popat calls for interurban over light rail or Skytrain, while another independent mayoral hopeful, John Wolanski, calls for SkyTrain for Fraser Highway.
UP NEXT: Learn more about the opposing transit platforms from mayoral candidates, and how they compare to the recently released LRT business case.