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Mayors vote to build business case for Surrey SkyTrain expansion

Mayors’ council on regional transportation approve preliminary business case

The SkyTrain expansion project in Surrey got a nod of approval from the mayors’ council on regional transportation Thursday.

A preliminary business case for the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain expansion project was presented to the council on Thursday with recommendations by the joint finance and governance committee.

The vote came after a lengthy discussion on the pros and cons of the project. The council voted to complete the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain expansion’s project business plan in place and have it ready for submission to senior levels of government by January 2020. There’s currently $1.6 billion in funding set to build four stations with the line ending in Fleetwood but the mayors’ council is calling on the federal and provincial governments to commit more cash for phase three of a 10-year plan to extend the line all the way to Langley.

It also voted to refresh the south of Fraser rapid transit strategy to “consider combinations of alternatives within the $3.55 billion funding envelope and assess the consequences of providing less than 27 kilometres of rapid transit.”

READ ALSO: TransLink estimates the entire Surrey-Langley SkyTrain route would cost $3.12 billion

READ ALSO: Green Timbers forest advocates raise concerns about proposed Surrey-Langley SkyTrain route

The council rejected, however, a clause that “recommends preferred technologies for 104 Avenue and King George Boulevard, and assess the consequences of exceeding the $3.55 billion funding envelope, including impacts on a likely timeline to deliver those projects.”

“I think this project needs to go ahead as quick as possible,” Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum told the council.

Earlier in the meeting, Surrey Board of Trade CEO made another late-hour pitch for LRT in Surrey, appearing as a delegation.

“LRT is not a second-class transportation technology,” she said.

McCallum noted that the results of an April 2019 survey suggest 85 per cent of Surrey and Langley residents support the project, which he campaigned on in last year’s election, and is now calling on the federal political parties to declare where they stand on this.

“We’re asking federal candidates to commit to a Congestion Relief Fund so we can more forward with this important project,” he said.

The 16.5-kilometre SkyTrain expansion into Langley is expected to handle 62,000 riders per day by 2035.

The mayors’ council also voted to limit funding available for the first phase of the project to the $1.63 billion already secured.

Meantime, will the proposed SkyTrain expansion from Surrey to Langley gobble up all the cash available to meet other pressing transit-related needs in the City of Parks?

This depends on who you ask.

TransLink on Friday released the proposed locations for the SkyTrain stations, but the full 16-kilometre route would cost an estimated $3.12 billion – almost double the cash it has to work with. TransLink held a technical briefing and update on the proposed Surrey-Langley SkyTrain project in New Westminster, as well as a “refresh” on the South of Fraser Rapid Transit Strategy.

Surrey’s Board of Trade is “concerned” that expanding SkyTrain from Surrey into Langley will compromise transit improvements elsewhere in the city, such as to the 104th corridor and in Newton.

“Surrey and south of the Fraser have been waiting so long for transit and transportation investments,” said Anita Huberman, CEO of the board.

She said Friday’s announcement “denotes that the SkyTrain line will only go to 166th Street within the approved funding envelope by an estimated 2025 construction completion, leaving minimal rapid transit improvements to the 104 corridor and to Newton – and even to the rest of Surrey.”

“We need transit improvements in all of Surrey,” she said, adding that “development activity on the 104th Avenue corridor and Newton corridor need rapid transit.”

Huberman noted that Vancouver, Burnaby and Richmond could fit within Surrey’s city limits.

“We notice that there’s limited money left over for the 104th corridor and Newton corridor,” Huberman told the Now-Leader. “We need rapid transit in order to increase development, to bring in business, really revitalize the 104th corridor and the Newton corridor, that’s what we’re concerned with.”

But Surrey Councillor Brenda Locke disagrees with Huberman that spending on the new SkyTrain line will leave other Surrey transit projects in the dust.

“I don’t share that concern,” Locke told the Now-Leader on Monday. “We’ve had dialogue with TransLink that is absolutely talking about the Newton King George corridor and the 104th corridor – that’s a priority for us, as is South Surrey. Yes, the SkyTrain is one issue but actually the other routes are probably equally or more elevated in importance to us.”

Locke noted the SkyTrain expansion “is the one everybody is talking about, but the ones that are here and on the ground today are of equal or greater importance to us right now.”

So there’s not a dearth in available funding, then?

“I think they’re two completely different pots of money,” Locke said. “The SkyTrain is a major federal and provincial investment as the other ones are all part of the network plan and TransLink is always managing those on their own.”

TransLink’s overview on Friday was divided into three parts.

Jeff Busby, TransLink’s project director for the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain proposal, said that since TransLink doesn’t have the $3.12 billion in funding, staff looked at building the project in stages.

Running SkyTrain from the King George Station in Whalley to 166th Street in Fleetwood would involve a capital cost of $1.63 billion for seven kilometres of track, four stations and 25 cars, and a $17 million price tag annually for operating and maintenance costs.

“Even this shorter extension is a very effective project, less that 10 minutes from Fleetwood to Surrey centre and opens that part of Surrey to the rest of the transportation network,” said Busby, adding that if the project is approved within TransLink’s anticipated timeline, it could open to the public by the end of 2025.

For Councillor Linda Annis, spending $1.63 billion for seven kilometres of SkyTrain “really doesn’t seem like a good idea, particularly when a good piece of that goes through the Green Timbers area where there’s little or no residential.

“I would totally agree that we need to be spending our transit money much more wisely and looking at Surrey as a whole,” Annis told the Now-Leader. “So much of Surrey is underserved by transit at the present time and to spend that kind of money for such a small return, I don’t think is a good idea.”

The capital cost to expanding the line from King George to Clayton is estimated to cost $2.22 billion, featuring 11 kilometres of track, five stations and 35 cars with $20.4 million annually in operating and maintenance costs.

Busby said this would cross the Serpentine valley, “which is actually one of the more technically challenging portions of the project.”

The big one – running the line from King George to Langley – came in at $3.12 billion for 16 kilometres, eight stations and 55 cars with the annual operating and maintenance cost reckoned to be $32.4 million.

The proposed Surrey to Langley SkyTrain extension would run along Fraser Highway through to 203rd Street in downtown Langley.

A trip to Langley from Surrey would take around 22 minutes.

Ridership to Langley from King George station, according to TransLink, is expected to be 62,000 in 2035 and hit 71,000 by 2050.

During Friday’s meeting, TransLink released the proposed SkyTrain station locations, which would be located at 140th Street, 152nd Street, 160th Street, 166th Street, 184th Street, 190th Street, 196th Street and 203rd Street.

Busby said an environmental screening review will “consider a range of potential impacts of the project on the natural and human environment.”

He also said the SkyTrain line would be “entirely” elevated. He said staff looked at cost-saving measures, such as running the route at-grade, but it posed “significant” environmental impacts.

“One of the advantages of the elevated SkyTrain is that it can keep the footprint of the rapid transit to a minimum, especially compared to transit alternatives that would be running at grade,” said Busby, highlighting the Green Timbers Urban Forest and the Serpentine valley which is in the agricultural land reserve and is subject to flooding due to its low elevation.

“What we found was that there were, for some of those at-grade options, significant environmental and urban disruption impacts that came at a cost. We didn’t see much promise there in terms of cost savings.”

During his 2018 civic election campaign, McCallum said if he’s elected he would immediately halt the Light Rail Transit project that was in the works for Surrey in favour of expanding the SkyTrain line, which he said could be done with existing funds and that the project’s cost would be “significantly reduced” by having 30 to 40 per cent of it run at grade.

On Monday, Surrey city council was, according to a corporate report, expected to vote on whether to approve entering into a Memorandum of Understanding with TransLink for “advancing the SLS project towards procurement and developing the necessary successive agreements between TransLink and the City of Surrey.”

The memorandum of understanding also outlines the city’s reimbursement of up to $39 million for “unnecessary SNG-LRT costs.”

According to a corporate report for July 22, TransLink and the city have calculated the actual costs incurred for the SNG-LRT project, and it has been separated into two categories: $39.8 million in project development expenditures, such as planning, design, business case and procurement; and $14.6 million for early works such as Bear Creek Bridge and 104 Avenue utility relocations.

The final draft business case is expected to be before the mayors’ council in January 2020 with March 2020 being the “earliest anticipated date” for government approval, with a 15-month procurement window and four years’ construction.

Dean Barbour, executive director of the Fleetwood BIA, said “the frustation, in our mind, is that it’s going to likely stop in Fleetwood somewhere. Is that the best use of $1.6 billion?”

Barbour said under this plan, Cloverdale and South Surrey won’t have true rapid transit for decades.

“We’ve been steadfast since day one – connect Guildford and Newton to Surrey Centre, and build out. Spider web it out.”

“I’m not against SkyTrain,” Barbour said.

“This has nothing to do with SkyTrain, it has everything to do with connecting Surrey’s town centres in the most affordable and efficient way. That was light rail. The phase three planning under the original plan that got destroyed, this is the money needed to connect South Surrey, Newton, Guildford, Cloverdale, Fleetwood, Clayton, and even Langley.”

Barbour said while some think running SkyTrain to Fleetwood would be a gain for that community, “it’s not.”

“Fleetwood will be known in the future as a SkyTrain station. We don’t have the natural assets here that make it a destination. The one asset we do have is the view of Mount Baker, which we’ll lose.”

Barbour also predicted that more money to complete the proposed SkyTrain extension to Langley won’t happen.

“The province has promised a Pattullo Bridge, the province has promised an eight-lane tunnel, they’re looking at a gondola to SFU, Maple Ridge is getting expansion. Where are they going to find another billion dollars to build this out?”

The pot of money is only so big, Barbour noted.

During Friday’s technical briefing, TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond was asked if there is a concern that TransLink could lose the funding from the federal government considering an election is looming.

“There is always that risk… After the election, we’ll have to see, but we’re all working under the assumption that is a very firm commitment,” Desmond said.

“Now that being said, because we are changing technologies, and we have to put together a new business case, both the provincial government and federal government must review and approve the business case.”

However, Desmond said he is “very confident” the federal government “will recognize the very important needs of transportation here in our region.”

– With files from Amy Reid and Lauren Collins

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About the Author: Tom Zytaruk

I write unvarnished opinion columns and unbiased news reports for the Surrey Now-Leader.
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