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Municipal Politics
Urban Planning + Architecture

A Bold Proposal to Make Surrey’s Mayor a Transit Hero

McCallum’s pricey SkyTrain pledge is crashing. But old tracks and new tech can save the day.

Patrick Condon 17 Dec

Patrick Condon is the James Taylor chair in Landscape and Livable Environments at the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture and the founding chair of the UBC Urban Design program.

Dear Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum,

Congratulations on your recent return to the mayor’s office in my favourite city, Surrey, B.C. I read that you are wasting no time to capitalize on the mandate granted you (by the 41 per cent of the 33 per cent of eligible voters who voted you in) to throw out 10 years of transit planning by former and current officials throughout the region. You have successfully trashed their plan for a 10-kilometre surface light rail serving your Guildford and Newton town centres in favour of a four-kilometre Expo line extension to... Fleetwood?

I know you said during the election that you could build SkyTrain all the way to Langley City Centre down the Fraser Highway for the same money as the light rail plan, but sadly TransLink and the Mayors’ Council do not agree. They say that since SkyTrain costs twice as much per kilometre as surface light rail, the $1.65 billion already allocated will only get you through Green Timbers Park (not a lot of riders there!) to Fleetwood (I bet the owners of the Fleetwood Park strip mall are overjoyed!).

Premier John Horgan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have already said they are still happy to fund the original plan but will not give you one dime extra for the switch to SkyTrain.

Worse still, the Mayors’ Council just voted to make you square up for the $56 million already spent on the light rail proposal, which ironically is about the same cost as the Grandview Heights community centre and library project you scrapped for lack of funds. Wow. That’s what I call a pretty bad day for sure.

But fear not, I can help. What if I told you that there is a way to serve Scott Road, West Surrey, North Delta, Newton Town Centre, Cloverdale and Langley City Centre by rail for way less than the cost of the four-kilometre “Fleetwood SkyTrain Express” (as some wags are calling it)?

Wait, it gets better! What if I told you that you could also be a hero to the folks in Abbotsford and Chilliwack by extending the line all the way out to serve them too, still for the same money!

Wait! It gets better still! After all that there would still be enough to put a tramline down King George Highway to Newton Town Centre and over to Guildford Town Centre so you won’t have to pay back that $56 million!

Interested? Here’s how.

Follow the tracks

For 75 years BC Electric served the locations listed above along a track that is still in use. It’s the old BC Electric Interurban Line. It turns out that the line was never sold, only leased, to CP Rail. The conditions of the lease call for the return of the line to the province if ever passenger rail service were to restart.

1200px version of InterurbanMap.jpg
Route of the BC Electric Rail Interurban line still reserved for passenger service. Map courtesy of Rick Green.

Better still the lease also stipulates that if the frequency of rail service is such that the rail must be double tracked, CP must pay the costs!

What about vehicles? Well, you could run overhead lines on the route for an electric train, but they cost a ton.

Fortunately there is a simpler and far cheaper solution. Alstom Corp., a global transit company that now supplies transit vehicles to Ottawa and Toronto, just launched a hydrogen-powered transit vehicle that can be had for less than the cost of a handful of SkyTrain cars. And here is maybe the best part. British Columbia’s only hydrogen refueling station is right here in Surrey, and Surrey could be a strong competitor for a proposed hydrogen fuel manufacturing plant. So the project supports the growth of local green jobs for Surrey too!

The concerns you have voiced about LRT vehicles getting slowed down in traffic and adding to congestion (which are misplaced I would argue, but admittedly strongly felt by some) go away with this plan since the track is in its own right of way for the whole distance with very few at grade crossings. And at grade crossings can be controlled by crossing gates (as is done for hundreds of commuter rail and tram/train systems in North America) or by simply slowing down the train to obey signals as they do in Portland, Oregon for the MAX line tram/train.

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The Portland streetcar system has a per-kilometre cost that is less than one-fifth that of SkyTrain. Photo by Steve Morgan, Wikimedia Commons.

More good news. This plan has already been studied. The engineering and business case was developed not too long ago in the “Proposal for Rail for the Valley” by Leewood Projects of Surrey, U.K. (yet another Surrey tie in!). They estimated that it would cost around $600 million for track, vehicles, stations and overhead wires for a commuter rail tram/train system of over 90 kilometres! That is a tiny fraction of the cost per kilometre of SkyTrain and a 100-year transportation solution for the entire South of Fraser urban region.

That study was conducted in 2010, so it will cost more now. But the study assumed overhead wire infrastructure not needed if you use hydrogen power and track reconstruction, which may not be a cost borne by you (as mentioned above) so who knows, costs could be less.

Worst case, let’s say the cost is a cool $1 billion. You still have $600 million left to play with. And if you want to get the other mayors off your back you could strip the bells and whistles out of the light rail proposal you hate (but the Board of Trade desperately wants) and do a Portland-style tram to Guildford and Newton for less than 60 million per kilometre.

582px version of HydrogenBus.jpg
Hydrogen-powered bus. Surrey already has the infrastructure in place to fuel hydrogen vehicles. Photo via Ballard Corp.

Or maybe you can mollify the other mayors, the Board of Trade, and your local environmentalists with a hydrogen-powered bus rapid transit to Newton and Guildford for even less.

In short, you have many ways to make Surrey the centre of a thriving metropolitan “South of Fraser Kingdom” rather than the dead end of the Vancouver SkyTrain line. And you can get yourself out of what looks like a tight spot politically.

Now that you have successfully blown up the whole regional transit plan I am sure you can see the benefits of grabbing this fantastic life preserver, and give Surrey and the whole South of Fraser region the futuristic transit it deserves.

Your humble servant and Surrey booster,

Prof. Patrick M. Condon  [Tyee]

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