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FOCUS: Full steam ahead for Surrey’s SkyTrain expansion, policing transition plans

Pandemic or not, projects still on
(Surrey Now-Leader file photo)

The Safe Surrey Coalition – which dominates city council – ran its 2018 campaign largely on seeing two major projects to fruition. These are swapping out the Surrey RCMP for a city police force, and expanding SkyTrain from Whalley into Fleetwood, and then on to Langley.

Along came the pandemic, resulting in job losses, businesses closing and the economy grinding to a halt. Is this the proverbial perfect storm, then, for these two capital projects?

What impact is the pandemic having on them, and if they are to be delayed, until when?

The answers might surprise you.

First, the SkyTrain expansion. The plan is to extend the Expo Line some 16 kilometres, along an elevated guideway from King George SkyTrain Station down Fraser Highway to Langley City Centre, hitting eight new stations on the way, to the tune of $3.1 billion.

Scott Neuman, Surrey’s general manager of engineering, told the Now-Leader on Monday that $1.63 billion – enough to get the train to 166th Street – in “available and secure funding is in hand, in essence, and it’s on track to still get to 166th Street in Fleetwood in the first phase and TransLink’s continuing to do all the technical work.”

End of the line for SkyTrain in Surrey – for now. (File photo)

That includes environmental screening, developing procurement documents and preparing updates for First Nations, stakeholders and the public. The only thing being held in abeyance, Neuman said, is that public engagement was planned for April 2020, “and that’s what they’ve postponed at this time and they haven’t come back with a formal update.

“Everything was supposed to be on track, because a business case has already been submitted to the feds and province, so that’s on schedule, and in essence that would be under review, and the intent was to have those final approvals this spring/early summer and then it was all supposed to come back to the Mayors’ Council for July 2020 for the final approval to get to 166th, and then what comes out of that would be the procurement documents for the contractor, shortlisting for the contractor and commencement with an RFP (Request for Proposal).”

TransLink, of course, has problems of its own. On Monday the public transportation authority announced it’s implementing “cost-saving measures” with the aim to resume regular service by September. TransLink is losing $75 million per month, with ridership down by 83 per cent.

It has also issued temporary layoff notices to 1,492 TransLink, Coast Mountain Bus Company, and British Columbia Rapid Transit Company employees and has reduced senior executive salaries and Board remuneration by 10 per cent. It’s also asking customers to only use public transit if necessary, to ensure space is available for essential service workers.

“This has been an incredibly tough decision and one we do not take lightly,” TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond said. “We’ve done our best to try and reduce costs through other means, but TransLink is losing $75 million per month, and we’re left with no other options… I fully expect those affected will be recalled once TransLink returns to regular operations, which we are now planning for back-to-school in September, if consistent with provincial guidelines.”

Nevertheless, Lida Paslar, a senior spokeswoman for TransLink, confirmed Monday that the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain project is not affected by these pandemic-related cuts.

Neuman echoed that.

“I think TransLink, the topic at hand in the media, is with respect to their operating,” he said. “This capital funding was already provided from the province and feds to get this far. Similarly, there could be a stimulus package coming out of this from the feds and the province, over this next six months, next year, whenever they announce it. The extension to Langley will be a great candidate because in essence it would be shovel-ready, to be done all at once, with the first phase.”

“What they’ve said is it was always going to be late 2025, early 2026, that’s the time frames.”

The other big project on Surrey’s books, replacing Surrey RCMP with a city-made police force, at a cost of $129 million, is also steaming ahead.

“Thing are still going as planned,” Terry Waterhouse, general manager of Surrey’s Policing Transition, told the Now-Leader on Monday. “Like other projects of the city, we continue to move them forward during this time.”

Last month Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth released to the public the 455-page report from the Provincial Municipality Policing Transition Study Committee, which he called “very comprehensive.”

Terry Waterhouse. (File photo)

At Surrey council’s inaugural meeting on Nov. 5, 2018 it served notice to the provincial and federal governments it is ending its contract with the RCMP – which has policed these parts since May 1, 1951 – to set up its own force.

Farnworth on Aug. 22, 2019 gave the city the go-ahead to pursue the plan and last November Mayor Doug McCallum said Surrey Police officers could be patrolling alongside the Surrey RCMP by summer 2020, despite there being no agreement in place to see this happen. Oppal said that timeline is “ambitious,” but McCallum in February stuck to that date. This, of course, was before the pandemic hit.

The Now-Leader reached out to McCallum for comment for this story, but he did not respond.

“The mayor is aware of your request,” Amber Stowe, communications project manager for the city, replied in an email Monday.

READ ALSO FOCUS: Former top cop thrusts McCallum’s rocky history with Surrey RCMP back in spotlight

It’s no great secret the policing transition issue has been controversial. The Surrey Board of Trade in March called on Surrey to postpone it “indefinitely.”

“In these unprecedented times of COVID-19 economic impacts not only to business but to all levels of government, the City of Surrey must re-deploy all efforts to rebuild our economy,” Anita Huberman, CEO of the board, stated in a press release.

Councillor Linda Annis, the sole representative of Surrey First on council, said Monday that Surrey should put the brakes on these major projects during the pandemic.

“I think we should be stopping any major capital projects for now, particularly with the financial situation that TransLink is in. I’m not sure where levels of government or TransLink are going to be able to find funding to build the extension at this point in time,” Annis said.

Linda Annis. (File photo)

As for the policing transition, she said, “I think we have to be putting a hold on that. More than 2,000 people have lost their jobs just within the City of Surrey alone. People in Surrey, residents in Surrey, are concerned for their own financial well-being, businesses are closing. The city needs to be focusing on any funding that we have to help our residents and help our businesses out.”

The City of Surrey has temporarily laid off 2,016 employees because of the pandemic.

Annis tried unsuccessfully to present a notice of motion that would see property taxes in this city deferred until Dec. 2, but Mayor Doug McCallum ruled it out of order. Taxes are normally due on July 2.

The city subsequently announced that council will consider extending the payment due date to Sept. 2, but that doesn’t sit well with the councillor.

“I don’t feel that’s a reasonable time to give people a chance to get back to work and for businesses to re-open,” Annis said. “We need more time to be able to allow people to get back on their feet.”

Last week the City of Surrey issued a press release indicating that while the city “is feeling the financial strain” caused by COVID-19, it has “been able to moderate the financial impact caused by the virus.”

According to the press release, Surrey is experiencing an average loss of $4 million each month to the pandemic and, based on COVID-19 restrictions “easing by early summer,” the city is estimating a budgetary shortfall of $37 million to $42 million by the end of 2020.

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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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