Kudos to the City of Surrey for posting detailed tables from its recent opinion survey on light rail transit. Too often, governments hide the results of taxpayer-funded surveys from the taxpayer.
As reported earlier, Surrey is acting outside its jurisdiction in developing a plan for local rapid transit. This activity is intended to move regional, provincial and federal authorities to come up with the cash for detailed design and construction. Surrey is the 12th-largest municipality in Canada, and growing rapidly. City government is hoping that Ottawa in particular will go beyond the conventional limit and pay 50 per cent of the cost of a new stand-alone rapid transit system.
As part of its LRT strategy, Surrey invited the new federal minister for infrastructure to town. Amarjeet Sohi appeared at a February 12 breakfast hosted by Mayor Linda Heppner at Surrey City Hall. He didn’t present a cheque, but he delivered a touching speech on the human benefits that flow from infrastructure investment, and he drew warm applause from an audience of perhaps 200 people . Mayor Heppner mentioned a high level of support for LRT as measured by Ipsos, and survey results were released on February 15.
The headline from the survey is that 80 per cent of the roughly 1,000 respondents expressed support for the idea of light rail transit development. The three and a half best arguments in favour:
- LRT will help improve transportation options for Surrey residents (90 per cent agreement)
- LRT will help connect communities within Surrey (88 per cent)
- LRT will help make it easier for Surrey residents to get where they want to go (86 per cent, seems a lot like #1)
- LRT will help create good jobs in Surrey through construction and ongoing maintenance (86 per cent)
When participants were asked about their biggest concern, 41 per cent mentioned funding. Who’s going to pay? This is a valid question, and does not undercut the general current of support for rapid transit. Other concerns registered as slight or almost marginal.
There has been insistent online opposition to the LRT concept from those who would prefer Skytrain, Metro Vancouver’s elevated train technology. In particular, opponents argue that ground-level trains will create conflicts with other vehicles. In the survey, ten per cent of respondents raised this as a concern, with the highest concentration of concern (17 per cent) near the proposed LRT hub in central Surrey. Three per cent of respondents questioned the safety of LRT, with a high of five per cent in Guildford.
The survey did not directly test the popularity of LRT versus Skytrain. The pro-Skytrain folks may decide to attack the survey’s validity on this basis. However, there was no sign of a pro-Skytrain lobby at the breakfast, and the people I spoke with — elected officials, business people and a community news reporter — said they did not consider Skytrain to be an issue.
More significant, perhaps, is the slight gap in support among the 55+ crowd, i.e. people like me. Forty-five per cent of this group said they would never use an LRT system. Twenty-three per cent expressed opposition to the LRT proposal, compared with 15 per cent of respondents under the age of 54. The older demographic owns property, contributes to municipal election campaigns, and votes in disproportionate numbers. The same group, I would suggest, is tied to their cars and often opposed to change.
On another question, half the survey sample said they had little or no familiarity with the LRT proposal. Large numbers of Surrey residents, in other words, may be open to arguments from an LRT opposition campaign if one emerges.
The people of Surrey will not be paying for a new LRT system, but strong and continued support from the community is essential to maintaining credibility for this project. The City has a job to do in educating its residents and consolidating its base of support.