COLUMN: Urgent need for rapid transit in Surrey

Light rail or SkyTrain – the rapidly growing city just needs something.

The City of Surrey sent out a provocative press release on Sunday, saying that “LRT arrives in Surrey.”

The city arranged with Bombardier Transportation to exhibit a 60-foot-long, full-scale model of a light rail vehicle at the popular Canada Day event at the Millennium Amphitheatre in Cloverdale.

The model being exhibited was the Bombardier Flexity Freedom vehicle. The city says it is designed with the latest technology, emits no emissions and reduces visual and noise pollution.

Mayor Dianne Watts is on record as wanting LRT in Surrey, as opposed to extensions of SkyTrain. She would like to see LRT lines on at least three busy corridors – 104 Avenue from Whalley to Guildford; King George Boulevard from Whalley to Newton with a possible extension to South Surrey and from Whalley to Langley on Fraser Highway, passing through Fleetwood and Clayton.

The cost of LRT extensions is considerably less than SkyTrain, which has been very expensive to construct. However, SkyTrain is separated from road traffic and as such can offer quicker trips and not get tied up by intersection crashes. One only has to travel on SkyTrain from King George station to New Westminster at a time when the Pattullo Bridge is backed up to understand that.

For more on the city’s perspective, see www.surrey.ca/RapidTransitNow.

However, not everyone agrees with Watts. Daryl Dela Cruz, chairman of the SkyTrain for Surrey Initiative, says SkyTrain costs in other areas have been inflated by specific conditions, and he says a study his organization is working on will provide the true costs of SkyTrain versus LRT. His organization’s position is detailed at http://skytrainforsurrey.org.

The real issue to consider in the debate is this: will any money be forthcoming from the senior levels of government to pay for most if not all of the capital costs of extending rapid transit in Surrey? Surrey can’t come up with the money itself, and TransLink has been reluctant to put money towards adding transit service in Surrey.

TransLink’s own money woes seem to indicate that it will not be taking the lead in bringing more rapid transit service in Surrey anytime soon.

Discussions between South of the Fraser mayors on transportation have been going on for some time, and it may well make sense to set up a separate South Fraser transit authority. It could still cooperate with TransLink and pay part of the costs of buses that go from south to north of the Fraser, but chances are it could provide better service here – if it had enough taxing authority.

That’s been TransLink’s problem from day one – it has proven very difficult to expand transit service with its limited taxing authority. While it keeps saying a car tax would solve many of its problems, that is a non-starter in areas like Surrey where bus service is so poor.

For now, the LRT model provides something to dream of – frequent and fast rapid transit in Surrey, service that could move a lot of people quickly. That service could be a SkyTrain extension, or it could be at-grade LRT. No matter what, it is needed now, because Surrey transit service is far from what it should be in a city with this many residents.

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