COLUMN: SkyTrain expansion a long time coming

SkyTrain will finally be expanded in Surrey. An extension to Fleetwood moved another step forward at the July 25 Mayors’ Council meeting.

The go-ahead to do more detailed planning follows a report released by TransLink the previous week, stating that the funding already in place is enough to extend the line to Fleetwood, probably somewhere in the vicinity of 166 Street and Fraser Highway. Trains could be in service by 2025. – 31 years after the last SkyTrain extension in Surrey was completed

That extension to Whalley from Scott Road station added three stations to the Expo Line.

SkyTrain first line opened in 1986, running between New Westminster and Waterfront station in downtown Vancouver. By 1990, a bridge across the Fraser River had been completed and the line was open to Scott Road station. The final Surrey extension was completed just eight years after the Expo line opened.

Why has it taken so long to extend SkyTrain in Surrey since that time? It has long been the fastest-growing city in the region, and remains one of the cities most under-served by transit. In a word, it’s due to politics.

TransLink was set up by the NDP government headed by Glen Clark, shortly after the last SkyTrain extension to Surrey opened. The province was anxious to unload some of the ballooning costs of transit, both operating and capital. It dangled a carrot in front of the region’s local politicians, and they took the bait.

The idea was sound, but TransLink has never had anywhere near enough funding for significant capital projects. Every increased tax it has proposed has led to political battles. It has boosted the gas tax (most recently to 18.5 cents a litre on July 1) and property taxes, and added a few new taxes such as the tax on parking spaces (now at 24 per cent). Nonetheless, it is still chronically short of money – particularly for big-ticket capital items like SkyTrain extensions.

The political risk in accepting the TransLink proposal was soon obvious. The Clark government couldn’t keep its hands away from transit mega-projects, so insisted on construction of the Millennium Line, which had not been on the priority list. This, in effect, gave Burnaby two SkyTrain lines. Left behind were regions like Richmond and Coquitlam, and of course Surrey.

The building of the Canada Line was a lengthy exercise in finger-pointing politics. The TransLink board rejected the proposal several times until the provincial government, by now headed by BC Liberal premier Gordon Campbell, again intervened. Richmond finally got its rapid transit line, but Coquitlam and Surrey were still waiting.

The Evergreen extension to Coquitlam and Port Moody only opened in 2016. Surrey was still on the wait list. A proposal to boost the sales tax to help TransLink gain more revenue for capital projects was rejected in a referendum, and it seemed an extension to Surrey was again on hold.

The frustration of constantly being left behind was part of the reason the Surrey First-dominated council pushed the idea of an LRT line from Newton to Guildford – not rapid transit, but local transit on rails. While the Surrey public was not given much opportunity to comment on the idea, funding finally came through, thanks largely to the federal government putting much more towards transit in B.C. than it ever has.

Last fall’s municipal election became the de facto public consultation on the LRT plan – and it was made very clear that the public did not like it. Former mayor Doug McCallum, out of office since 2005, won his seat back and his Safe Surrey Coalition initially had eight seats on council. At the inaugural meeting in November, LRT was put to death, and now SkyTrain will officially take its place.

TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond says the extension to Fleetwood has a strong business case and will be busy as soon as it opens. Barring more political infighting, the line will eventually be extended to Clayton and then eventually to Langley City. It will likely be at least a decade before any trains run that far.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News, as well as at frankbucholtz.blogspot.ca

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