FOCUS: Despite ‘No’ vote setback, Surrey mayor still committed to light rail in 2018

In light of the overwhelming transit plebiscite victory for the ‘No’ side, we sat down with Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner for a Q&A about Surrey’s transportation needs and how they will be met in the future.

Voters overwhelmingly said ‘No’ to the proposed tax. What’s next for the region?

What’s next is we will be reviewing all of the services that are currently offered. There is no new money, which means that many of the contracts that are up and have some cost implications. TransLink will have to review its services and look for even greater efficiencies…. There will be no new growth. So service will be constrained, it’s that simple. There’s no money.

Where could the dollars come from in the absence of a sales tax?

I think we’re not going to have to go back to the drawing board and either the province will come up with some solution or they will revisit, potentially, the carbon tax. It’s currently revenue neutral, but is that a possibility?…. Mobility pricing has always been on the table as a possibility but it takes a long time to work out those kinds of details and in the meantime we stay stagnant. Is it possible we can get financing while we work out mobility pricing? That remains to be seen. So right now it’s an entirely grey slate. Property tax is not on the table. So we’re now in a stand off and we have to find a solution.

During the election, you committed to having operational light rail in Surrey by 2018. Is that still a commitment?

There’s no one more dedicated than me and this council in getting that connectivity that is required in the city as soon as possible. We have taken a step backwards with the time, obviously, that the referendum took but I am still committed to pushing forward to 2018.

Surrey’s LRT is estimated to cost $2.2 billion. How do you plan to pay for it?

The mechanism of the plebiscite was in order to have the regional share. My expectation for the provincial share and the federal share remains – that Surrey will be a priority and I believe we heard that from Minister Todd Stone even in his comments that they stand ready with their one-third share. And I’m optimistic that the federal government, having been screened in and having the conversations that we’ve had over the last several weeks, that they also recognize the importance of the Surrey transportation expansion and would stand ready with their one third. So it’s the regional one-third that we need to find financing for. The funding, I would hope would still be regional the same as the Millennium Line or the Evergreen Line, but that we have a private financer. We’ve been looking and have had early conversations with those interested in doing that. But do I still believe it needs to be shared regionally? Yes I do.

When do you hope to break ground?

I think that as a region we need to step back now, take a breath, see where we’re going to go, next steps with the mayors’ council and with the province. We’ve told the province we would hope to have some solutions by the end of this year. I think that’s a pretty aggressive target but I think the other mayors in this region have been at this table much longer than me and are pretty frustrated…. But I think there’s a real chance that we can define some of our concerns around governance and make some headway there. We’re in the midst of hiring a brand new CEO for TransLink and that gives us an opportunity to shift the governance model at the same time.

In Surrey specifically, about 66 per cent voted ‘No’ and the city spent $240,000 on its ‘Yes’ campaign. Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

I think that all that could be done was done. I think we, for the first time, have had a very serious conversation in the region about transportation generally. I don’t think that people currently have enough confidence in the system as it currently exists to put more into it for a myriad of reasons. I’m disappointed that that’s where we are but I’m not entirely surprised that that’s where we are.

Just how needed is Surrey’s transportation expansion?

It’s the biggest problem this city has… It is the biggest problem I have, and I’ve got lots… You can’t consider yourself urban in the absence of some kind of an urban system and we just don’t have it. In terms of being a centre of excellence and a place where people can get around and thrive, all these young families, and you can get to your jobs easily and you’re within the city, it’s just so vitally critical. I just can’t say enough about how aggressive I now have to be to make it happen somehow.

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