New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Cote has suggested Surrey should pay back the $50 million TransLink says it has spent on planning light rail in the city, but mayor-elect Doug McCallum who intends to build SkyTrain instead says that won’t be happening.
“We have no intention of paying that,” McCallum told the Now-Leader. “It’s TransLink’s problem, and it’s their mistake because they didn’t do any public consulting.”
McCallum says he and his Safe Surrey Coalition will put forward a formal motion to cancel the light rail project in Surrey at the inaugural meeting of the new council on Nov. 5, after campaigning on a promise to nix the project in favour of SkyTrain.
Cote — one of the few Lower Mainland mayors re-elected on Oct. 20 and thus, returning to the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation — said the region “does have to respect what the Surrey electorate says” and it would be “difficult for the region to push ahead with a light rail project that was no longer welcomed in the community.”
But, Cote said there must be a “serious discussion” about the City of Surrey “reimbursing the region” for the millions already spent on the project “given that it’s Surrey that’s made that change in direction.”
That $50 million, according to TransLink spokeswoman Jill Drews, has been spent on technical studies, preliminary design, planning, consultation and early works.
McCallum questioned the figure.
“I’ve asked TransLink where that figure comes from, line by line. Where did they get to that? At this point they’ve refused to give it to me. I don’t believe it,” said the incoming mayor, adding that things like staff time can’t be part of the equation.
McCallum said switching technologies, like he intends to do for Surrey, isn’t unprecedented.
“When I was (TransLink) chairman doing other lines, TransLink spent money studying light rail down the Arbutus corridor and the people in Vancouver didn’t want that. They wanted it switched to SkyTrain technology down Cambie Street. They never requested Vancouver pay back the fees that were spent,” he noted.
In all, the fully funded and approved Surrey-Newton-Guildford LRT line was estimated to cost $1.65 billion. Some have expressed doubt about whether Surrey mayor-elect Doug McCallum can get his envisioned SkyTrain extension along Fraser Highway to Langley built with the money already on the table.
TransLink says that a 16.5 kilometre SkyTrain line along Fraser Highway to Langley would cost about $2.9 billion, according to a preliminary cost estimates report completed in 2017. That cost is something that would have to be updated during a business case preparation stage, TransLink noted.
But McCallum insists the line can be done with the money that’s been committed, partly because he intends for part of the system to be built “at grade,” or at ground level, which would “significantly” reduce the price tag.
And, because of the total cost of the Evergreen Line.
“The Evergreen Line came in a year-and-a-half ago at $1.4 billion,” said McCallum. “So we think that even if you add inflation, and maybe the cost of some of the materials to be a little bit more, that we can still build it along Fraser Highway at $1.65 billion.”
According to McCallum, TransLink’s estimates “as far as rapid transit are not very accurate.”
Cote said he doesn’t believe McCallum’s envisioned line can be built for that price.
“No, I don’t. I think TransLink has already done those estimates. The difference between light rail and SkyTrain is an extra billion dollars,” Cote remarked, noting that it’s his understanding that even if part of the line is at-grade, it’s still going to be far more expensive.
“So this shift from light rail to SkyTrain is definitely an option that can be considered. But the negative to that is the Surrey perspective, and it will likely mean that far less of Surrey is going to be covered in rapid transit,” Cote added. “It’s important to recognized that funding will not get you SkyTrain all the way to Langley City. It’s been unfortunate that misinformation is being put out.”
Meantime, there has been speculation about whether the federal funding earmarked for Surrey’s LRT line will be able to be utilized for a SkyTrain line.
McCallum says it can be, and the federal government seems warm to the idea.
After McCallum was elected on Oct. 20, Liberal Fleetwood-Port Kells MP Ken Hardie said if he could get the region’s mayor’s behind his SkyTrain vision, the federal government would sign off on transferring LRT funding.
“The regional level will be the first step,” Hardie told the Now-Leader.
“Right now what we have is an agreement between the region, province, and federal government on a plan. The plan was a result of a lot of work, some of it was consultative, some of it was technical. The plan right now specifies LRT for the L-Line. The federal government rarely, rarely, if ever gets so deep into a project to try to interfere with the type of technology and the route,” Hardie elaborated.
Hardie said as long as there are “no really huge variances” in the hypothetical new plan, he expects the federal government will transfer the rapid transit funds.
Meantime, the City of Surrey had planned to contribute $24.5 million to the light rail plan, something approved by the outgoing Surrey First council.
One of the major contributions would have been the city releasing the city-owned lands in the Newton Town Centre to allow for re-alignment of 137th Street. Another planned contribution was the use of city-owned properties on 144th Street for the construction of a LRT power substation.
But that money hasn’t been spent, according to city hall.
The $24.5 million “is related to land contributions in some form and none of the R/W or city lands have been released or transferred,” wrote Melanie Gaboriault, manager of communications for the SNG-LRT line, in an email to the Now-Leader.
It has been reported in other media that the City of Surrey has spent $20 milllion in pre-construction costs, but the city has not yet responded to a Now-Leader request for clarification.