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ELECTION QUESTIONS: How do candidates form their opinions on transit in Surrey?

Who is on the right side of Surrey’s transit debate? That’s for voters to decide come Oct. 20.
Rendering of a planned Surrey light rail train. (Photo:

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second part in a series leading up to Surrey’s Oct. 20 election. Click here to read part one. Are there questions about the Surrey election you want answered? Let us know by commenting below or emailing us at


LRT or SkyTrain? The debate is inarguably one of the hottest topics in the Surrey election thus far.

Today, we focus on the two mayoral candidates who are on opposite sides of the transit spectrum, to see why they feel so strongly about choosing one technology over the other – and what information has formed their views.

Who wins the debate? Well, that’s for voters to decide come Oct. 20.

Light rail’s biggest champion in the election race is Surrey First, with mayoral candidate Tom Gill leading the charge.

It’s a plan that’s been on Surrey’s books for at least a decade, and was championed by former mayor Dianne Watts.

In all, a system with more than 150 kilometres of LRT is envisioned and if realized, that would make Surrey’s system larger than the entire SkyTrain line across the region. First up is the approved $1.65-billion 10.5-kilometre light rail line, which would connect Newton to City Centre via King George Boulevard, and City Centre to Guildford via 104th Avenue, as part of phase one that was “officially launched” by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in early September.

“We have been fighting for our share of transportation dollars as long as I’ve been on council,” said Gill. “We finally have something that’s come to fruition in terms of the $1.65 billion could jeopardize that investment. The business case, under any circumstance, would not support SkyTrain.”

Then, there’s the cost.

“It costs $3 million to build an LRT station and probably costs us north of $40 million for a small-scale SkyTrain station,” said Gill. “So the ability to modify, the ability to adapt as the community changes, is not there.”

And, according to Gill, a comparable SkyTrain line would cost another $1 billion, or more. Money, he said, which is “just not there.”

“It could set us back a decade,” he said of others suggesting they will halt the project and build SkyTrain instead.

See also: ELECTION QUESTIONS: What would happen if Surrey LRT was scrapped?

See also: All eyes on Newton as Surrey LRT plan rolls forward

See also: Surrey to contribute $24M to LRT costs

Gill said 200,000 residents live within five minutes of Surrey’s proposed SNG line alone.

“My most important message is we’re not trying to get residents to Vancouver. Seventy per cent of residents work here, and we want to try to increase that number,” he said.

Gill rejected the notion that LRT would be unsafe. He said “fear-mongering” has changed public perception of LRT. TransLink says safety is its “number one priority,” and intersections are being redesigned to incorporate a process called “channelizing,” which is said to make turning “safer.”

Essentially, this involves upgrades so left turns are only permitted with a left-turn arrow.

“My most important message is we’re not trying to get residents to Vancouver. Seventy per cent of residents work here, and we want to try to increase that number,” he said.

“My most important message is we’re not trying to get residents to Vancouver. Seventy per cent of residents work here, and we want to try to increase that number,” he said.

A new business case

Surrey First council candidate Paul Hillsdon is a Surrey LRT planner with TransLink. The longtime transit advocate has almost always advocated for light rail in the city, but a 2012 study made him think SkyTrain could be best. SkyTrain along Fraser Highway and rapid buses on King George and 104th Avenue was one of the shortlisted options at that time, along with just rapid buses, and two routes for LRT.

Hillsdon told Black Press in 2013 that the study showed SkyTrain was potentially a better option, and said he was keen to support that analysis.

“It’s not about the technology to me, but assessing all the options and objectives, to figure out the best solution,” Hillsdon told the Now-Leader earlier this month.

What made him, then, support LRT once more?

“It’s the final, and approved, business case. It details the project’s history, back to 2009,” Hillsdon stated, noting after that 2012 study, additional analysis was done.

“That’s where, to my understanding, the business case says collectively in that plan they decided to go with LRT,” he said. “Both the LRT option and the SkyTrain option in 2012 said they would meet the needs of the South Fraser region. There’s slight differences…. but if your main priority was to move as many people as fast as possible between Langley and Surrey then that SkyTrain option is going to be a little bit better.

“The thing that’s new, that opponents aren’t realizing, is the business case does say there was an updated analysis for SkyTrain for this corridor. Bus rapid transit won’t meet the needs for the corridor – that was the shortlisted option in 2012. But it found that on opening day, that bus rapid transit will be full. It won’t meet the demand. That’s why the business case was approved.”

If you ask Hillsdon, “we really need to respect the process and the professional analysis that’s done. People are just throwing out their pet projects and there’s no analysis being done.”

See also: City of Surrey envisions 150 kilometres of light rail transit

See also: VIDEOS: LRT car showcased for first time in Surrey

The recently released Surrey LRT business case, of course, aims to illustrate why LRT makes the most sense. It reveals a timeline.

After that 2012 report, more analysis was done, including engineering studies as well as financial and technical analysis.That included updates in 2016 surrounding land use planning and actual ridership data. At that time, it was concluded that LRT, not SkyTrain, was the “preferred technology” for the line. Further evaluation was done in 2017 using new ridership forecasts and cost estimates, which the business case says “re-confirmed” LRT was the best choice.

The more recent analysis found that the current 96 B-Line has an average end-to-end travel time of 29 times from Newton to Guildford, but is expected to increase to 43 minutes by 2045, due to congestion. The business case says “revised ridership figures indicated additional capacity would be needed to service the SNG corridor relative to the assumptions in the 2012 study.” LRT, according to the business case, would maintain its 27-minutes time consistently during that same time period along the route.

It also notes that light rail was found to be the “only alternative able to provide adequate capacity to transit users beyond 2030 without compromising customer service in relation to reliable, fast run times or without further degrading vehicle travel times.”

Ridership forecasts on Surrey’s 10.5-kilometre SNG line, by 2030, is estimated to be 53,000 daily boardings, expected to climb to an average of 74,000 by 2045. The business case also states LRT offers a “safe solution for travellers, particularly when compared to travelling by either bus or car, particularly given the proposed dedicated right of way and traffic signal priority for the LRT service, both of which help to reduce the risks of collisions.”

It goes on to say that around the world, LRT operations are found to be safer than the bus alternative, noting a rate of 0.37 per 10,000 kilometres for LRT in 2014, and 0.66 per 10,000 kilometres for buses.

‘Light rail won’t work’

Former mayor Doug McCallum and his Safe Surrey Coalition vow to halt the project if they come into power and instead immediately begin a SkyTrain extension to Langley on Fraser Highway. Phase two of McCallum’s plan involves eventually extending SkyTrain all the way down King George to South Surrey. Why is McCallum dead set against LRT?

“It’s Surrey’s make up, the geographic make up of Surrey is the reason why light rail won’t work,” he said. “One-third of Surrey’s area is agricultural land, one-third of it is parks, and one-third is left for residential developments, businesses and so forth. If you take agricultural part, it’s a nice part of Surrey and it’s why people love living in Surrey, but for rapid transit, you got a real problem there with it going through the middle. You can go through all these boxes of comparison between light rail and SkyTrain, for Surrey, doesn’t make it in any of the boxes in speed, ridership, congestion, it just doesn’t work in Surrey.”

McCallum noted the Expo Line carries 100,000 people a day, so that ridership for that extension is already “built in.”

“What a lot of them do for Surrey is get off at Surrey Central and get onto the buses. All of that would be stopped if we extended it out,” he said.

The pro-LRT camp says the goal is moving people within Surrey, instead of out of the city, but McCallum said with rapid transit, people are more interested in getting to their destination quickly.

“I’ve talked to people in Clayton and they’re so excited if we get elected, and build SkyTrain,” McCallum said.

“On Fraser Highway, we’d put a station right at the edge of Clayton so they could hop on the SkyTrain and be in Downtown Vancouver in 45 minutes.”

But what about the fact that any SkyTrain line would have fewer stops than LRT, forcing some to take a second mode of transportation? McCallum said he envisions “fast buses” with dedicated lanes out of the flow of traffic to quickly connect people to the larger system.

“People don’t mind taking a quick bus, then hopping onto rapid transit that can take them downtown in under an hour,” he said.

“We talk to people in Guildford and if they want to go to Vancouver, the thinking has always been going down 104th Avenue. But would you catch a quick bus that goes three or four blocks that goes to Fraser Highway and catch a SkyTrain there?”

The cost is another issue McCallum touched on, recognizing his election opponents say a SkyTrain plan would cost an extra $1 billion. McCallum says his plan won’t cost that much more, because he imagines 30 to 40 per cent of a SkyTrain line along Fraser Highway would actually be at ground level, which he says “significantly reduces the cost.”

McCallum says his SkyTrain extension would go at ground-level through Green Timbers on Fraser Highway, would come up and be elevated through Fleetwood, then come back down to road level through the ALR section, going “up and over” 176th Street.

Another part of McCallum’s plan is to “pause development” and encourage more high density along transit lines.

“We’ve seen the development industry densify around (SkyTrain) stations,” he said. “That just doesn’t happen with LRT. It doesn’t encourage development. What it does do is move people around. Businesses like it, because it puts customers at their door step and SkyTrain, people are riding above.”

McCallum said he’s “never seen this kind of majority against a major infrastructure project, certainly, in my political career,” adding that he doesn’t think TransLink has done enough consulting. “They may have set up in the little regions, come out and say, ‘Look at the layout and give your opinions,’ but real consulting is going out there and asking the people what type of system do you want. Not saying, ‘This is what we’re building. What do you think? When I’m out in the community I get 100 per cent (of people saying they don’t want LRT).”

Other viewpoints

A variety of other parties running in the election have taken stances on transit in Surrey. The 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.

See also: SURREY ELECTION: 8 running for mayor, 48 council hopefuls, 30 trustee candidates

The People First Surrey party’s is against LRT and calls for a SkyTrain along Fraser Highway and the SNG route instead, with more buses launched “immediately.”

But, unlike McCallum, they’re calling for the entire route to be elevated. Down the road, their transit platform envisions rapid transit expansion to South Surrey with eventual connection to the Vancouver-Seattle rail route.

People First Surrey says LRT will cause more congestion in the city.

“Local politicians and bureaucrats need to stop attaching their legacies and egos to LRT and need to rationally think about the Surrey public’s needs and wants,” the team stated, saying after “honest dialogue about what the taxpayers need and want” elected officials need to “stand up for Surrey and to get funds moved to SkyTrain.”

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.

That slate says it will “focus any new transit development on frequent bus service to all neighbourhoods” and will “work with Whatcom County municipalities to create a break-even cross-border bus network connecting to Bellingham Airport, the Alaska Marine Highway terminal and other important U.S. destinations.”

Progressive Sustainable Surrey mayoral candidate Imtiaz Popat calls for interurban over light rail or Skytrain, noting it was “planned as a community rail service south of the Fraser that would run for Scott Road station through Newton, Sullivan, Clayton, Cloverdale, Langley, Abbotsford and all the way to Chilliwack at the fraction of the cost of the proposed LRT or Skytrain.”

Meantime, independent mayoral hopeful, John Wolanski, calls for SkyTrain for Fraser Highway.

Another independent mayoral candidate, Francois Nantel, instead proposes a “suspended” system like the Wuppertal Suspension Railway in Germany.

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