Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Transit promises made during this election cycle, and the upcoming referendum

During this year’s municipal election campaigns, public transit was one of the major issues being discussed in BC's two largest cities: Vancouver and Surrey.

In Vancouver, the winning Vision Vancouver team promised to make the construction of a Millennium line extension, under Broadway to Arbutus, a priority. They also promised to support the upcoming transit referendum with everything they got.

In Surrey, the winning Surrey First team was even bolder in their promise to deliver rapid transit to the residents of that community.

Mayor Elect Linda Hepner promised light rail on King George and 104th by 2018. Light rail on Fraser Highway would follow. While Surrey First is committed to advocating for a positive outcome for the transit referendum, they have promised to build light rail in the community either way.

Normally transit projects in Metro Vancouver have been funded a third by the region, third by the province, and third by the federal government. With former Surrey First Mayor Dianne Watts moving on to federal politics, I wouldn’t be surprised if the feds would pitch in a billion dollars to fund Surrey light rail. That would leave $1.1 billion to be paid directly by Surrey taxpayers.

As Surrey is in good financial health, I’m certain that the City would be able to absorb the cost of funding the construction of light rail with a long-term loan. The annual operation cost of a Surrey Light Rail system would be $23.2 million per year. If Surrey was to go-it-alone, it would have to come up with an agreement to have a seamless fare system between TransLink buses and SkyTrain, and City of Surrey light rail. Technically this would be possible. For example, the Canada Line works like this as it is operated by a private company. Another example is the Portland Streetcar which is owned by the City of Portland, but is operated by TriMet, its regional transit agency. Politically, TransLink would have to give Surrey its blessing as this is required under current provincial legislation.

All the regions mayors, including Surrey’s, are opposed to using property tax to pay for increased transit service under TransLink. Surrey First’s go-it-alone light rail plan would require $10 to $15 million in additional annual property tax revenue to pay for the operating costs of the system. Surrey has around $600 million in annual operating expenses.

Surrey First’s go-it-alone light rail plan would do nothing to expand bus service in the community. While less sexy than light rail, buses are desperately needed and would still serve the majority of transit users in the city.

Last night, Ministry of Transportation Todd Stone was asked about Surrey’s go-it-alone light rail plan.

Has the province been negotiating with the City of Surrey to build a light rail line? The province is looking forward to working with Mayor elect Hepner and the Mayor's Council

Transit plays an important role in our region. I am happy transit became an election issue in Metro Vancouver’s two largest communities. Both Visions Vancouver and Surrey First politicians need to work hard to ensure our region gets the funding tools need to build transit which will be required to maintain the livability of our region.

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