The City of Surrey posted its animated vision for light rail in 2011, and set up a rapid transit office in the same year. A detailed route plan is finally on the way, we are told, but there is no clarity on who will pay for construction.
Surrey is British Columbia’s second largest municipality by population, and ranks twelfth in Canada as of this post. Under former mayor Dianne Watts, city government invested heavily in the Surrey Central precinct to create a focus for advanced education, culture and technology. Surrey wants to compete with Vancouver in terms of national profile, employment quality and career opportunity. Rapid transit is part of that story. The hub of the proposed LRT system is to be located at Surrey Central, with connections to the Skytrain line that feeds into Burnaby and Vancouver.
This would be the first light rail transit system in B.C., although LRT has been operating in Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa for many years and has proven to be popular. A 2015 consultant’s report for the City of Surrey highlights the economic benefits from construction, but also claims a number of long-term benefits from system operation. LRT, the report says, will provide “a pedestrian-friendly, human scale and urban-style neighborhood design form of transport that offers both eyes on-the-street and from-the-street visibility, is compatible with lower density portions of the lines, and adds lighting and other amenities that enhance community ambiance, comfort and quality.”
Surrey business groups and some community groups have created a pro-LRT coalition called Light Rail Links. However, there is pushback from those who favour Skytrain technology. Their arguments, which dominate many of the chat threads on news sites, are summed up on the Skytrain for Surrey site. This appears to be the work of a lone contributor named Daryl dela Cruz, but its search engine presence is strong.
For the Skytrain partisans, LRT is too slow, it doesn’t move enough people, and it may conflict with vehicle traffic. As a confirmation of the last point, Calgary saw four vehicle/LRT collisions in December 2015, one of them fatal. The three surviving motorists were all charged with trying to race the train. The safety of LRT is, therefore, up for debate. I would point out, however, that mayhem and death is common on our roads even where there is no LRT in sight. The three top crash locations in Surrey produced more than 500 collisions in 2013.
The fact is that Skytrain and LRT are different creatures and have different functions. Skytrain is the rapid transit equivalent of a freeway. It moves large numbers of people over long distances. It’s expensive to build, its elevated guideway is ugly, it seems to propagate tower development rather than village development, and even then the towers are often deficient in commercial services. The intention in Surrey, judging from the consultant’s report, is to use LRT to build neighbourhoods rather than flying over them, and also to build a more densified local economy rather than shipping people to other jurisdictions.
Funding for Surrey LRT is a muddle partly because the Metro Vancouver transportation authority’s funding plans were based on a tax increase that was voted down in 2015. Surrey City Hall deserves credit for carrying the cost of LRT project development, but it cannot proceed to construction without regional dollars. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised federal cash for Surrey in the 2015 election campaign, and the BC Liberal government says it will “aggressively lobby” Ottawa to make good on this promise. However, a federal contribution — through a “P3 Canada Fund” set up by the former Conservative government — was always part of the LRT calculation. The key question, in my view, is whether the provincial government will play a constructive part in putting together a regional funding package.
The City of Surrey’s LRT website says the public is to be consulted in 2016 on “community integration, which will look at elements like access to stations, roadway changes to accommodate the new line and components of station design and construction management.” A June 2015 staff report to Surrey City Council said consultation work was to be completed in time to meet a March 2016 submission deadline for the P3 Canada Fund, with the submission to include “additional engineering design, geotechnical work and preparation for environmental assessment.” However, there is no sign that any consultation events are planned. Perhaps community engagement has been deferred to the next planning round.