COLUMN: It takes more than transit to build a city

Announcement of transit funds for Surrey is a good start but more needs to be done.

Friday’s announcement that the provincial government will match the federal government’s $2.2-billion contribution to transit infrastructure – including the Surrey LRT line between Newton and Guildford – is good news for Surrey.

For the first time since 1994, rapid transit will be extended south of the Fraser River. It comes much later than it should have, given the enormous growth in Surrey, Delta and Langley, but better late than never.

The LRT (L-line) will run at grade between 72 Avenue and King George Boulevard and 104 Avenue and 152 Street. It will provide a slightly faster way of travel along 104 Avenue and King George, although it has yet to be fully explained what will happen at the traffic lights on both streets. What is most likely is that there will be some sort of advanced green for trains – but they will still be delayed by lights and traffic on occasion.

Surrey council has long believed that an at-grade rail system will entice more people onto transit. This is almost certainly true. However, it takes more than a transit system to build a city. The L-line will work best if well-paying and meaningful jobs are created along the corridor.

There is some progress on this front. In particular, Simon Fraser University, the new City Centre campus of Kwantlen Polytechnic University, the Coast Capital Savings head office and the medical innovation projects suggested for an area near Surrey Memorial Hospital are creating or will create jobs.

If people holding those jobs live somewhere near a bus stop or the L-line itself, they will use transit.

Along 104 Avenue, most of the current jobs are in retail. Little has been proposed in redevelopment along that corridor, but there are a number of possibilities. There is a fair amount of land with development potential along the street, and the giant unused building constructed near 142 Street more than a decade ago does have potential.

If the number of jobs does not significantly expand, Surrey will continue in its traditional “bedroom community” role and most people using transit in Surrey will be heading for SkyTrain. The L-line will connect with both King George and Surrey Central stations. While the L-line will make a SkyTrain connection somewhat easier, it will not be the game-changing community builder that politicians have trumpeted.

There is another factor in the funding of these projects that needs to be considered. TransLink needs to come up with 20 per cent of the capital costs of these new projects over an 11-year period. This amounts to $1.1 billion, or $100 million in extra taxes per year. It doesn’t currently have the power to do so.

Suggestions for new taxes include road pricing – something most South Fraser residents would likely consider to be fairer than toll bridges – and a development tax on new projects near the rapid transit corridors.

This latter tax could become a brake on development in Surrey. Developers already pay significant development cost charges to the city. If they need to pay a substantial amount more to build on properties near a rapid transit line, many will hold off until the economics make it worthwhile. With the very high cost of development land at present, a transit development cost charge will likely act as a disincentive for at least some new projects.

Rapid transit badly needs to expand in Surrey. The added provincial funding should ensure that the first project gets underway, but there are still a number of challenges ahead.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News.

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