COLUMN: How will Surrey pay for LRT?

There are still several significant hurdles to climb for the city's Light Rail Transit project.

The Surrey LRT project championed by Mayor Linda Hepner is a step closer to reality, with the  confirmation Monday that a Conservative federal government will fund one-third of the cost, up to $700 million.

Naturally, the Conservatives had Dianne Watts, Hepner’s popular predecessor and candidate in South Surrey-White Rock, make the announcement, along with Industry Minister James Moore, who is not running in the election. Watts had been scheduled to make the announcement with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Sept. 3, but the news about members of a Syrian refugee family who had hoped to come to Canada and died at sea changed the focus of the news conference. LRT was not mentioned.

Hepner promised in last fall’s municipal election campaign that the first phase of LRT would be up and running by 2018. On Monday, she revised that estimate, saying she now hopes work will be well underway by that time.

Liberal candidate Sukh Dhaliwal, running in the Surrey-Newton riding, had earlier promised the Liberals would also fund one-third of the LRT project. The NDP has promised additional infrastructure funding as well, and it’s likely an NDP government would back the Surrey project.

There are still several significant hurdles to climb for this project – which involves an initial street-level line from Newton to Whalley and Guildford, and another line down Fraser Highway as far as Langley City – to go ahead. Before it proceeds, there must be absolute commitments for funding from all levels of government.

The federal funding seems relatively secure. B.C. Transportation Minister Todd Stone said Monday Victoria would fund one-third of the LRT cost.

It is an interesting about-face from the province’s 2008 position, when it insisted that the Evergreen Line project use SkyTrain technology before it would agree to help pay for it. That line, now under construction in Coquitlam and  Port Moody, had been proposed as an LRT line.

There is significant opposition to any LRT lines within Surrey. Daryl Dela Cruz of SkyTrain for Surrey has been the most vocal, and has produced details showing that the time passengers spend travelling by an LRT line won’t be much different from the time it takes buses and cars to traverse the same route.

Dela Cruz calls for extensions to the SkyTrain line and more bus rapid transit. Many people agree that SkyTrain should be extended.

The biggest obstacle, one that Hepner blithely ignored during the discussion leading to the referendum on the proposed sales tax increase to help fund transportation projects, is the source of local funds for the project.

Where will the local one-third share come from?

At this time, TransLink does not have funds to contribute. Surrey could go it alone, as Hepner suggested at times, but that would be prohibitively expensive tor taxpayers. She had also suggested a P3 approach, as was done with the Canada Line, but taxpayers still must pay the private funders back.

It could be done with additional premium fares on the LRT, as is done on the airport extension of SkyTrain. It is certain some will come from property taxes as well.

It is possible that Peter Fassbender, the cabinet minister responsible for TransLink, will help the beleaguered organization find some ability to come up with more funds, but that won’t happen anytime soon.

It seems most likely that the line will be built. But given all the hurdles it still faces, it may be just getting started by the time Hepner’s next election campaign rolls around in 2018.

Frank Bucholtz is the recently retired editor of The Langley Times. He writes weekly for The Leader.

 

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