COLUMN: We’re caught in a loop of transit shortcomings

Improved transit south-of-the-Fraser has always been an issue, and it may not be one going away anytime soon.

The Mayors’ Council has agreed to tax and fare increases to fund the first phase of an ambitious transit-expansion plan.

This approval follows months of consultations, and comes 1½ years after voters turned down a more ambitious plan, which would have been funded by a 0.5 per cent increase in sales tax.

The first phase modestly improves transit service, and can be seen primarily as a catch-up move. Service on the busiest bus routes, on SkyTrain and Seabus, along with HandyDART, will increase. A modest number of new bus routes will also be added.

As is so often the case, the improvements south of the Fraser are fewer, as the area’s transit service continues to lag that offered in the core area of Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster and Richmond.

To some degree, this is a vicious circle. People don’t use transit to the same extent south of the Fraser because it isn’t convenient, thus the routes do not get as overcrowded.

A glance at the map that accompanies the summary of TransLink’s Phase 1 actions (available at tenyearvision.translink.ca) illustrates just how deficient service south of the Fraser is. Significant areas of Surrey receive no transit service at all.

A few of the gaps will be filled. In South Surrey, a new route is planned for the rapidly growing Morgan Crossing area. Clayton, which has been growing for 15 straight years, will get a new route to supplement its infrequent lone shuttle bus. A B-Line bus will be instituted along Fraser Highway where the current 502 and 503 buses are often overcrowded and passengers left behind.

On the road front, the replacement of the Pattullo Bridge has been shuffled to Phase 2. Even the failed sales-tax plan called for it to be a toll bridge, so the delay is hard to explain.

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, vice-chair of the Mayors’ Council, lauded the decision to boost service and raise taxes as “A Merry Christmas day for the region.”

She points to Phase 2 as when Surrey will really get better transit. Two rapid-transit lines are supposed to be built. One will be an LRT line from Newton to Guildford, along King George Boulevard and 104 Avenue. The other, more controversial line will be built along Fraser Highway to Langley City.

Surrey officials want that line to also be an LRT line, but have run into resistance from a number of citizens’ groups who want SkyTrain technology used. The provincial government wants that option to be explored. However, as Surrey’s rapid-transit manager Paul Lee points out, there is no infrastructure money available at present from the federal government for SkyTrain along Fraser Highway.

Actual rapid-transit service along Fraser Highway is likely at least a decade away – assuming the federal and provincial governments continue to be willing to pay for a significant portion. In the meantime, Surrey, Delta, White Rock and Langley residents will continue to have substandard transit service, even though they will pay significantly more in taxes for the improvements.

Another tax may hit this area disproportionately. TransLink plans to implement a development cost charge on new development, if the province approves. That additional fee will be paid by those who buy new homes. If current trends continue – and there is no reason to think they won’t – a great deal of that construction will take place in Surrey and Langley. Many young families have chosen to move to these areas, particularly to townhomes, which are more affordable. The costs of these homes will rise due to this new tax.

South of the Fraser residents will have to decide if these extra costs are worth it.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News.

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