Light rail for Surrey?

Library and civic plaza seen from Surrey City Hal

Library and civic plaza seen from Surrey City Hall

Surrey’s trimmed-down, still iffy light rail project is entering the preliminary design stage. We may get details in 2018, if things go well, on how the new train line and its stations will affect streets, sidewalks and private properties.

This project is a key component in local government’s drive to knit Surrey’s pattern of subdivisions into an urban unit. The new trains would link Newton and Guildford, both sizable retail and employment zones, with City Centre and nearby Innovation Row. Surrey’s population is approaching half a million, and the 10-year-old City Centre initiative is creating a new hub for jobs and investment with the potential to rival downtown Vancouver  The LRT project is also intended to spark mixed-use development in neighbourhoods along the way.

72nd Avenue, Newton Town Centre by the existing transit terminal

72nd Avenue, Newton Town Centre by the existing transit terminal

It’s now called Surrey-Newton-Guildford LRT. As described in previous posts, an L-shaped light rail line is planned to run north from Newton, make a 90-degree turn near Surrey City Hall, and proceed east on 104 Avenue to Guildford. The proposed Fraser Highway transit line, to connect Surrey Centre with downtown Langley, has been shelved indefinitely.

The City and Metro Vancouver’s transportation authority (TransLink) hosted public information sessions during the past week. Co-attendee David Plug and I spoke with Helen Cook, a planning manager at TransLink. She gave us a high-level view of the project timeline, which goes: concept design, procurement of contractors, and up to five years that would combine ongoing technical design with construction. The first challenge on that list is to win public support for the concept design, which will signal changes to Surrey streetscapes and traffic patterns that some local residents have known all their lives.

Revised Surrey rapid transit plan, with the Fraser Highway leg shown as

Revised Surrey rapid transit plan, with the Fraser Highway leg shown as “Phase 2”, no dates provided

What happened to the Fraser Highway line? When I wrote in early 2016 about Surrey’s five-year-old plan to build rapid transit at ground level, I got a vigorous response. Critics expressed a strong preference for SkyTrain (elevated light rail), especially along Fraser Highway. Light rail is slow, they said, light rail interferes with car and truck traffic. I believe this second argument is much overstated — there is a lot of space on Surrey roads — but it is true that the SkyTrain goes faster and farther. Through mid-2016, senior officials in the B.C. government and TransLink appeared to waver on the Fraser Highway section, suggesting they might revert to SkyTrain — recognizing that the up-front costs for the elevated train and its concrete guideway are much higher than for LRT.

Eventually, when new rapid transit sketches emerged in January 2017, ground-level light-rail transit for Newton, Surrey Central and Guildford was still in the picture, moving ahead, while the Fraser Highway leg was demoted to Phase 2 status with no delivery date attached.

Surrey-Newton-Guildford LRT is a sure thing, not yet. While federal funding is promised, the Province hasn’t committed. However, a B.C. election is coming in May, Surrey is an important piece of the election puzzle and, happily enough, the cost of showing support for rapid transit in Surrey has recently been much reduced.

“A vision of LRT in Surrey” captured from the January 2017 information sessions web page. The location is not identified.

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