COLUMN: Stars align for Surrey LRT

With a federal Liberals majority government, Surrey’s Light Rail Transit line is high on the list for infrastructure funding.

There’s a good chance that Mayor Linda Hepner’s campaign promise of Light Rail Transit coming to Surrey will be fulfilled.

Hepner initially said during the fall 2014 municipal campaign there would be an LRT line up and running within four years. In other words, in time for the next election. She later backtracked slightly, saying she expected the line would be under construction by 2018.

Hepner was given a massive endorsement by voters, with her Surrey First slate winning all nine council seats. Since the election, she was named vice-chair of the Mayors’ Council and, along with chair and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, pushed for a “yes” vote in a referendum on additional funding for TransLink. That of course failed, at least partially because of over-the-top spending by TransLink and local governments to try and ensure a positive outcome.

However, since that time, the federal Liberals won a majority government, winning all but one seat in Surrey. That’s put Surrey’s LRT line high on the list for infrastructure funding. The Justin Trudeau government wants to build projects that will create jobs and promote a greener agenda. Electric-powered rapid transit fulfills both objectives.

Hepner was among a number of mayors from all over the country, members of the big city mayors’ caucus, to meet with Trudeau and other federal representatives in Ottawa last week.

There has been some interesting discussion about this latest round of infrastructure spending in a number of forums. Many observers are suggesting that municipalities should not have to pay their traditional one-third share of the capital costs of such projects.

There is a good argument to be made in that direction. Municipalities have limited sources of revenue, with property tax being the main one. TransLink, which is in effect an inter-municipal body, has suffered tremendously from the limited sources of funding available to it. Its quest for more funds has been repeatedly fought by the public, most notably in the recent referendum.

One reason that TransLink can’t expand bus routes in a significant way in growing cities such as Surrey is the pressure it is under from capital spending. It boosted the gas tax to help pay for the Evergreen Line project, which is still under construction. Its inability to take on more capital projects is one reason the Pattullo Bridge replacement project is nowhere close to getting off the drawing board.

If Surrey or regional taxpayers only had to pay 10 per cent towards the capital costs of the LRT line, that would make it much more likely to proceed. It would be difficult to finance a one-third share of the cost through property taxes or other new taxes, such as the sales tax increase rejected by voters in the TransLink referendum.

The challenge of capital costs is one of the main reasons that Surrey has pushed for LRT, as opposed to an expansion of SkyTrain. LRT, because it is at-grade, is cheaper to build. The many critics of the Surrey LRT plans point out that travel times won’t be much different that they are now, via bus and car. They are correct. However, unless the federal and/or provincial governments begin to pick up a larger share of the capital costs of the transit projects, it is unlikely that they will be built anytime soon.

Hepner has to be happy with how the planets have aligned for LRT. It seems very likely that the construction work for at least the first phase – the line along King George Boulevard and 104 Avenue – will be underway in time for the next election.

That should give her some ammunition for a re-election bid in 2018.

Frank Bucholtz writes weekly for The Leader.

 

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