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.