COLUMN: Better transit still stalled

Existing bus and SkyTrain lines in Surrey are completely inadequate to deal with the city's rapidly growing population.

In a March 1 meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at city hall, Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner again emphasized the importance of Surrey’s proposal for two Light Rail Transit (LRT)  lines, as well as other green infrastructure.

It was the first visit ever of a sitting prime minister to Surrey city hall, which demonstrates Surrey’s rising importance nationally. It continues to be one of the fastest-growing cities in Canada. It also suffers from a significant infrastructure deficit, with schools, recreation facilities, roads, parks and transit projects all in short supply.

The timing of the LRT line construction will likely be tied to federal infrastructure plans, as TransLink and individual cities do not have enough funds to pay for the local portion of the project. The defeat of a referendum to raise the sales tax to give TransLink additional funds effectively put the Surrey LRT lines, as well as the Broadway corridor SkyTrain extension, on hold.

The federal budget is due on March 22 and it may offer some clues as to whether Surrey will get enough funds for at least the first phase of the LRT project to proceed. That would be the L-line at street level along King George Boulevard from Newton to Whalley, and then east to Guildford along 104 Avenue.

For a short time last week, Metro Vancouver mayors and councillors thought perhaps they would have access to more funds without the necessity for a referendum, as Premier Christy Clark has dictated. Surrey-Fleetwood MLA Peter Fassbender, minister responsible for TransLink, suggested a vehicle levy was possible without a referendum.

The levy has been available as a funding option to TransLink since the regional transit agency was created by the NDP government of Glen Clark in 1998. However, it has been controversial. People living in areas where transit service is minimal felt they would be subsidizing transit riders and fiercely opposed the vehicle levy.

Fassbender quickly retracted his remarks, saying, “I misspoke when it came to the vehicle levy, and I do apologize for that.”

He said that a vehicle levy would require the province to enable ICBC to collect an annual vehicle registration fee.

“It is also a new tax, therefore it would be subject to a plebiscite or a referendum with the public.”

The challenge facing Surrey LRT, which is now expected to cost $2.6 billion, is going to be funding. Even if the federal share of funds is more than the traditional one-third which usually flows to infrastructure projects, TransLink and/or Surrey will have to come up with a substantial amount.

If local taxpayers have to pay for one-quarter of the cost rather than one-third, that would still be $650 million. TransLink can’t come up with that amount based on its current funds. A vehicle levy would help it get a little bit closer, but that wouldn’t likely be enough, given the other large projects (the Broadway line and new Pattullo Bridge) which need significant funds from TransLink in order to proceed.

Surrey badly needs significant investment in transit. The existing bus lines are completely inadequate to deal with the city’s rapidly growing population. SkyTrain has not been extended further into Surrey since the final three stations in Whalley opened more than 20 years ago. There is minimal or no transit service in newly developed areas such as East Clayton and Grandview.

This means that people in Surrey need to have vehicles in order to live their day-to-day lives. Until Surrey’s transit system is expanded substantially, that won’t change.

Frank Bucholtz writes weekly for The Leader.


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