COLUMN: Surrey needs to put pressure on province

The City of Surrey has more clout than it realizes in the year leading up to the provincial election, writes Frank Bucholtz.

The City of Surrey has more clout than it realizes in the year leading up to the provincial election. Thus far, it has been reluctant to use it.

Mayor Linda Hepner, somewhat belatedly, realized that there was a problem with school capital funding. She only seemed to realize the depth of the problem after the Surrey Board of Education voted on April 21 to ask the city to suspend development applications in three fast-growing areas.

She offered the board support, saying a month later that the city and school district had to come up with “their own plan” and present it to the minister.

Surprise, surprise. The province was receptive, and indeed almost fell over backwards to accommodate the school district. The BC Liberals won five of the eight Surrey seats in the 2013 election, and at least two of those seats are far from secure in the next election.

Within a few weeks of the board of education’s action, the government announced $100 million in capital funds for schools.

Now there seems to be an unreasonable delay in getting provincial approval for improvements to the Highway 99/32 Avenue interchange. This interchange was first built as part of a quid pro quo with the provincial government. Surrey agreed to allow a pre-trial centre to be built adjacent to city hall, in exchange for the interchange.

That area of South Surrey has grown exponentially since the interchange opened.

There are often lengthy delays getting on or off Highway 99, and on the two major streets the interchange connects to – 152 Street and 32 Avenue. Surrey’s plan calls for capacity improvements to the on- and off-ramps, as well as improvements to the turning lanes at the 32 Avenue/152 Street intersection.

Surrey first announced its plans for the interchange four years ago. The province must be a part of the project. It owns Highway 99 and has exclusive control over highway interchanges. Clearly, much of the funding will come from provincial coffers.

However, the province had other plans for Highway 99. It decided to go ahead with an interchange at 16 Avenue – which was also needed.

However, that does not mean that nothing should be done at 32 Avenue. Surrey Coun. Tom Gill says the project will now likely not get started until sometime between 2019 and 2021. If it is the latter year, groundbreaking will occur nine years after it was first unveiled.

Such a delay is unacceptable. The province has plenty of money – it just revealed that its budget surplus for 2015-16 was $730 million, far more than projected.

Surrey has to apply pressure to ensure that it gets a commitment from the provincial government to proceed with the project – and it needs to get that commitment before the election in May 2017.

There are other projects in Surrey which the province can play a major role in. Certainly, there needs to be more provincial support to help Surrey deal with the issues of homelessness and drug overdoses. The services available here are minimal when compared to many other areas. That needs to improve.

The province can also be pushed harder on its financial commitment to rapid-transit projects in Surrey.

The Surrey First slate, which holds all nine seats on Surrey council, has been very reluctant in the past to publicly push the province. It has been, for the most part, little more than a BC Liberal farm team, with the notable exception of Coun. Judy Villeneuve.

Hepner’s actions on the schooissue showed that she was finally ready to advocate a little more forcefully for the city. Hopefully, this will continue on other fronts. The 32 Avenue interchange on Highway 99 would be a good place to start.

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

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