Station locations by early 2016, but Surrey’s share of funding remains a wild card, say city staff
If you commute from Langley to downtown Vancouver, Surrey’s choice for light rail over familiar and faster SkyTrain lines may seem counterintuitive. But the choice for smaller “Euro-style” low-floor trains is more attuned to the city’s ambitions as a place where South Fraser residents can easily commute within the region, ideally without a car, according to Don Luymes, Surrey’s manager of community planning, who discussed Surrey’s light rail ambitions at the Architectural Institute of British Columbia’s annual convention on Friday.
The city of Surrey and TransLink are in the process of finalizing station locations, coordinating bus schedules and selecting run times for a system that Surrey planners hope will form the backbone of the city’s future development. By early 2016, the city will have finalized the final number and locations of stations along the 10-kilometre first phase, which will be nailed down in early 2016. But when it comes to the $2.1 billion price tag, little has changed. While provincial Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Todd Stone has reiterated his commitment to fund one-third of the proposal, and the incoming Trudeau government has made a similar commitment, the city still has to come up with $700 million to pay for its share.
The original plan called for the $700 million to come from a transit kitty funded by a 0.5 per cent increase in regional sales taxes. But well before voters rejected the increase, Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said that the city had other means to raise the money, such as a potential public-private partnership.
And like the Evergreen line—originally slated as LRT but changed to SkyTrain at the province’s behest—the province or the feds could still throw a wrench in Surrey’s plans. “The vision could be impacted by higher powers, but we’re hopeful for light rail,” said Don Buchanan, city of Surrey transportation planner and Luymes’s colleague. SkyTrain “is not what we’re focused on or hoping for,” said Luymes. “The province tends to like that technology,” he said later, though in that case, the route and station location would remain the same.
Surrey’s choice for light rail boiled down to density, both present and future. “Light rail was the natural choice in terms of the type of development appropriate for Surrey and bang for our buck,” said Buchanan, adding that the technology is “much more neighbourhood friendly.” And light rail doesn’t necessarily sacrifice speed: the trains can go up to 70 kilometres per hour over the stretches of farmland.
Also off the books: rapid bus transit—buses that run on a dedicated lane between transit-style stations. While buses run on similar schedules and cost a lot less to build, they would not be able to meet demand. The bus route north along suburban King George Boulevard is already as busy at rush hour as the congested B-line in Vancouver.
Not that planners have empty trains in mind. The city’s goal is to increase the percentage of trips to Surrey City Centre by transit from 14 per cent to 30 per cent, as public employers like Fraser Health and Simon Fraser University plus private sector employers increase their presence downtown. “We see Portland as the model,” said Buchanan—adding that Surrey's lines will resemble the city’s system in passenger numbers, frequency and design, down to the streetscape. A future transit junction at Surrey City Centre might be covered by a large timber roof, creating the effect of an indoor train station—and Luymes said that in the “deep future” further lines could criss-cross to Richmond. “Transit systems in more mature cities—like New York and Paris—are matrixes, not spider web networks.” Surrey City Centre will never rival downtown Vancouver, said Luymes, but if it becomes a more significant hub than Metrotown, that would be just fine.