Despite having numerous unanswered questions, TransLink’s Mayors’ Council voted to indefinitely suspend work on light rail in Surrey and begin planning a SkyTrain line to Langley.
“We’re pleased on behalf of all of our residents in Surrey … that we have changed the rapid transit project in the city of Surrey from light rail to SkyTrain along the Fraser Highway,” Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum said after a Mayors’ Council meeting on Thursday.
Last week, Surrey’s city council voted unanimously to cancel the $1.65-billion Surrey-Newton-Guildford light rail project, which is part of the second phase of a three-phase 10-year transportation plan for the region, and proceeding with SkyTrain instead.
In response, TransLink immediately stopped all expenditures of money and resources on the project, a move that the mayors unanimously endorsed at their meeting.
“I think everyone around this table recognizes that we’re not going to be able to move forward with the process as contemplated without the support of the host community,” said New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Coté, who was named chair of the council on Thursday.
According to a staff report, if the project is suspended for less than four to six months, then additional costs to relaunch the project would be “incremental.” However if it is held for more than six months, the business case would need to be completely redone.
TransLink has spent about $50 million and the City of Surrey has spent about $20 million on planning and pre-construction work for light rail.
Langley Township Mayor Jack Froese, vice-chair of the mayor’s council, said he wants a conversation with the City of Surrey to find out how much of that money can be recovered, if any, and who bears the cost.
“I think it’s important that this body knows how much that is. These are tax dollars,” he said, noting that federal and provincial governments may also want to be reimbursed for money the contributed to pre-construction work on light rail.
While they supported suspending the light-rail project, the mayors had many questions about the SkyTrain project — its design, timelines and funding, in particular — most of which were not answered.
“I think a common theme we have heard around the table is as we go down this path then we will be making more substantial decisions at future meetings,” Coté said. “More information is required for the entire Mayors’ Council.”
Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie was the loudest critic of the approach to Surrey’s request to switch to SkyTrain, suggesting that it was moving too quickly and “setting a very, very dangerous precedent.”
“It seems to me there are a lot of aspects that we need to review,” Brodie said, including completing a business plan.
Electoral Area A director Maria Harris said light rail can’t go ahead, but more thought needs to be given to what will replace it, what will happen to the work that’s already done and who is going to pay.
“The quickest way forward is not to throw a bomb into a hard-fought victory,” she said.
Anmore Mayor John McEwen reflected that the council had to struggle to get the money for Phase 2 of the 10-year plan, and getting any more will be an obstacle.
“While I respect Surrey’s wishes and that, I just don’t know where the money is going to come from right now,” he said.
The latest cost estimate for the SkyTrain line is $2.9 billion, although McCallum has said he believes it can be built for much less.
Staff say the project should draw only on the $1.58 billion remaining in Phase 2 plan funding after subtracting what has already been spent on light rail and the $1.9 billion that is contemplated in the Phase 3 plan, which has not yet been approved. Given the funding breakdown, staff believe it’s likely the SkyTrain project will have to be built in two phases, an idea that McCallum disputes.
As for doing more studies, McCallum said his sense is the public wants the mayors to get going and build the infrastructure the region needs.
“We do not want any delaying tactics that are being put out by previous speakers, we need to move forward quickly,” McCallum said.
Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart said he supports Surrey’s ambitions, but choosing a rapid-transit technology is not a simple process and proper study is required to see how it will work.
“We can’t jump in without study, and I think this is not a stalling mechanism,” he said.
City of North Vancouver Mayor Linda Buchanan agreed that the mayors aren’t trying to slow down the project.
“What they’re trying to do is be thoughtful and make informed decisions,” she said.
The hope is that some of the questions will be answered in the coming weeks and months.
The council directed staff to, by the next meeting in December, do additional analysis and draft a plan for how the transit authority will go about completing planning, consulting, design and procurement readiness work on the SkyTrain project, and initiating a planning process to update the South of Fraser transit strategy.
In Victoria before the Mayors’ Council meeting, Premier John Horgan said he’s still committed to the second phase of the transit plan approved by the previous council, as is the federal government.
Horgan said that the province is willing to listen to the mayors when they make a decision about how they want to change the plan, but “that will mean delays in the long term.”
Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart at a meeting of the Translink Mayor’ Council on Regional Transportation on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018.— with a file from Rob Shaw