From 2011 until last year, city government in Surrey (population 500,000) worked diligently on a plan for light rail transit. This would be the first at-grade LRT system in British Columbia; similar systems are in service in Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa. By 2018, $1.65 billion in funding from regional, provincial and federal sources was in place, with construction teams to be selected in 2019.
But a new municipal government elected in October 2018 moved quickly to kill the Surrey LRT scheme. LRT, according to an active group of opponents, was too slow, and it would get in the way of cars and trucks. SkyTrain moves more people over longer distances, and it has big city prestige.
The potential benefits of Calgary-style LRT in Surrey were clear to me and many others. Surrey, historically, has been a patchwork of malls and arterial roads, lacking a central focus. Under former Mayor Dianne Watts, the City made rapid progress on developing a true city centre. The LRT line was intended to carry employees and customers to the new Surrey Central and to the second-tier centres at Guildford and Newton. With stations located every few blocks, it might also support the development of neighbourhood-scale businesses and services, as envisioned over-optimistically by the Georgia Straight in November 2018.
Local governments, however, generally do a poor job of communicating big ideas, and citizen activism in support of LRT was thin. This is partly because the population base within walking distance of the proposed LRT line is thin, as shown on this site in 2016. Support was further eroded when the City proposed to take a chunk out of a local park to further the LRT project.
Metro Vancouver’s mayors, who are responsible for regional transportation priorities, accepted Surrey’s decision to scrap LRT. They agreed, in principle, to support a new SkyTrain line to run next to the Fraser Highway. After some delay, the staff at the regional transit authority have created a SkyTrain project web page and posted images of what future stations might look like.
But while the drawings are nice, funding for the project is uncertain. Governments have committed $1.65 billion, while the latest quoted price on the completed line to Langley is $2.9 billion. TransLink staff will work on detailed costing over the next year, and in the normal course of things the estimated price is likely to increase.
Kenneth Chan, a Vancouver urban affairs columnist who has slagged the LRT idea in the past, predicts that Surrey-Langley SkyTrain will see at least a partial opening in 2025. I would expect something more like 2028 or 2030, with luck.
I organized an early draft of this post over the Christmas period, when I was visiting Arizona. The Metro Phoenix transit system was marking the 10th anniversary of their LRT system. They offered a fare-free day, and Vicki and I rode for a couple of stops from a restaurant off Roosevelt Street to the Art Museum.
The 42-kilometre Valley Metro line carries on the order of 50,000 passengers each weekday, and local governments are keen to expand the system. The first phase of the late and apparently unlamented Surrey system was planned to run 10.5 kilometres, with 45,000 passengers per day by 2030. In other words, the Newton-Surrey Central-Guildford line was expected to be a very busy line by North American standards.
For me, I was happy to see the change in plans to use SkyTrain. The LRT just didn’t make sense for the cost to provide basically no time saving or increase in through-capacity for the system as a whole vs. a B-Line style rapidbus. And once it was in, you would be stuck forever with it.
As for development, I think that is mostly just a function of zoning. The developments envisioned by LRT proponents seemed similar to what is currently being built in the former wilds of Langley District, so I don’t understand why it couldn’t be built on King George or 104 if the city allowed developers to do so, whether the transit there is SKytrain, LRT, rapidbus, or just about nothing (as in many of the new Langley district developments, or in Osprey Village in Pit Meadows or wherever)
You characterized the Straight article as ‘over-optimistic’ but reading things like, “A street-level LRT system was going to make Surrey seem connected, hip, environmentally forward thinking, and far more contemporary than suburban cities marred by ugly SkyTrain guide rails.” it goes past optimistic to some sort of magical thinking – like the LRT is some kind of talisman that will make good things happen because it is just so ‘hip’ but ignoring things like travel time, route capacity, safety, traffic impacts, etc., things that aren’t very hip but matter a lot to people in their everyday lives.
Over at Pricetags, there was a comment that one of the goals of LRT was to make commuting to Vancouver so difficult that people had to stay in Surrey, and I saw that sentiment widely from LRT defenders, but if one of the goals of the system is to divide the region and make people’s lives more difficult, it’s no surprise that the people vote the plan down.
Surrey has made its SkyTrain decision, and this is not likely to change. I sometimes use the new Evergreen SkyTrain, and I appreciate the quick trip it provides from Coquitlam Central towards my client’s office in central Burnaby. However, I can’t accept the idea that the pattern of development around SkyTrain in the Lower Mainland is a random event. SkyTrain can deliver a high volume of riders to any given station, and this gives city governments the opportunity to achieve spectacular property tax revenues through intensive tower development. It could be argued that councils are obliged, in fact, to seek this development in order to restrain the rate of tax increases for longer-term residents. Not every station will see this kind of takeoff, for various reasons, but we currently have intensive tower development underway at Gilmore, Brentwood, Lougheed, Burquitlam, Surrey Central and Cambie/Marine, pending at Oakridge, and planned at Braid and Moody Central, with a transformation and further intensification planned at Metrotown. I understand that these developments respond to civic tax priorities and to market needs, but I am concerned about whether they can provide any sense of community or connection to residents. Joyce/Collingwood in Vancouver, as I have written on this site, provides a diversity of housing styles and green space, and is okay; Lincoln/Lafarge and Suter Brook (Inlet Centre) have some local advantages; but Brentwood, as I have noted here, is something else.
The Surrey LRT planners, as I understand it, promoted at-grade rail as a tool that would support modest-scale density, neighbourhood business, and relatively short commutes to work within Surrey in order to allow people to live and work in Surrey and build a civic identity. It surprised me to see this “Surrey first” perspective shouted down by people talking about the need to travel to Vancouver. When a Chamber of Commerce official in Langley was asked about the benefits of SkyTrain, she told a news reporter that it will provide a wonderful new way to travel to Vancouver Canucks hockey games. In my view, this is a ridiculous transportation priority.
In the end, the LRT team did not communicate their case. One obvious problem is that the city government in Surrey, while it talked about the potential for more complete, walkable communities along its light rail line, continued to expand the size and speed of its arterial road network, with sprawling new townhome areas that are largely car-dependent. The cost of LRT seemed too high, and the population adjacent to future stations too small. And looking over at Calgary, where I frequently worked and stayed in recent years, it’s obvious that city government have to work very hard to create attractive mixed-use nodes around LRT stations. Calgary has succeeded in only one or two cases.
The anti-LRT folk in Surrey have argued again and again that transportation has nothing to do with urban development; transportation, in this view, is an exercise in shuffling people around, like bottles on a conveyor belt. The fact is, however, that the form of transportation infrastructure we choose determines the shape of our cities. Metro Vancouver has been largely shaped by the roads that carry our private automobiles; we enjoy space and privacy in our suburban cul-de-sacs, but the lifestyle is less healthy than a walking lifestyle, it imposes a big environmental cost, especially in terms of carbon emissions, and it leaves a lot of people stranded, including seniors, people with disabilities, young teenagers and low-income families.