Monday, October 24, 2011

Surrey's Quest for Rail

When I left Toronto, I'd hoped that it would be a while before I had to reckon with another spate of light rail bashing. After all, just look what Rob Ford's reflexive opposition to, and unilateral "cancellation" of, the planned Transit City LRT network got that city - yet another grand plan that failed to materialize into anything, yet more wasted years in which things will continue to get worse before they get better. Thankfully, Metro Vancouver doesn't appear to be heading down that road; despite grumbling over the source of its funding TransLink is finally making headway on the Evergreen Line, and plans and artists' conceptions of the Vancouver Downtown Streetcar are still prominently displayed at the Non-Partisan Association's campaign headquarters.

Light rail has the potential for some time in the sun here, as well - more specifically, in the city of Surrey. Being right across the river from it, it's never that far from my mind, particularly when it comes to transit; I covered it in a post last year, though I was more focused on alleviating the transit bottlenecks between it and Vancouver. What's just as important is the issue of transit within Surrey itself, and with that city set to overtake Vancouver's population in the next couple of decades, there's no time like the present to address it. In that vein, earlier this year Surrey mayor Dianne Watts spoke strongly in support of the construction of a light rail transit network to serve the city of Surrey, and to start as soon as possible.

Not everyone south of the Fraser is behind that. In particular, there's already online and flyers-on-telephone-poles opposition from the SkyTrain for Surrey initiative, which is dismissive of light rail technology and would much rather see Surrey be served by rapid transit, using the same ICTS technology currently used by the SkyTrain's Expo and Millennium lines. How dismissive is this initiative? Well, for starters the website rarely hesitates to remind readers that the light rail in Surrey not only "may make transit service worse instead of better," but would be "cataclysmic."

Pictured: a light rail train in Phoenix, Arizona, broadly similar to what may run in the Surrey of tomorrow. Unless they're talking about the cataclysmic effect that big a stack of IHOP pancakes will have on your waistline, I'm not really seeing it.

I'm still pawing through the pages on the SkyTrain for Surrey website, but as of now a lot of the arguments I've uncovered seem to spring from the same train of thought that Rob Ford derailed in Toronto - that light rail would take away lanes for cars, and that's bad. One particular focus is on Surrey's 104th Avenue, which is featured in a video that depicts a light rail line along that street, anchoring its planned downtown core and connecting the existing Surrey Central Station with the up-and-coming developments at Guildford Town Centre to the east. Just yesterday, SkyTrain for Surrey posted a blog entry railing against this idea, stating that "a removal of capacity on 104th Avenue in Surrey is not an acceptable option."

So what's its answer? SkyTrain, of course! SkyTrain for Surrey's "Surrey Connected" plan envisions extensions and new lines radiating across the generally low-density Mississauga of the West, from TransLink's own long-term Expo Line extension to Fleetwood and Langley City to another route that would not only replace the LRT concept along 104th, but eventually extend south to the border of White Rock and wind its way north across the new Port Mann Bridge to connect with the Evergreen Line in Coquitlam. The fact that the installation of SkyTrain lines along these corridors would still demand a removal of capacity - even if it's only in the shape of a median, rather than multiple lanes - isn't really discussed.

That's a lot of SkyTrain track - sounds expensive! SkyTrain for Surrey cites "rough ballparks of about $110 million/km," though given that the Evergreen Line project website is currently estimating $1.4 billion in capital costs, it works out to be more like $127 million per kilometer on that basis. Given that, I can't see that SkyTrain network of theirs costing less than billions upon billions. I suppose the big question is, then, can demand in Surrey justify the expense of building a SkyTrain network, or would it just be a Sheppard Line writ large?

In the end, though, what I really take issue with is SkyTrain for Surrey's laundry list of reasons why they think light rail is bad. While concerns about the cancellation of parallel bus services are well-grounded, the idea that light rail lines "will disrupt communities and stall economic development" - not just during construction, mind you, but merely by existing - rings hollow when I consider the explosive growth of light rail systems in the United States. Cities like Portland, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Cincinnati, and Los Angeles have built or are building streetcar and light rail lines to revitalize neighborhoods and fill in cracks in their own transit pictures.

My opinion? TransLink doesn't have infinitely deep pockets, and Surrey's not going to be able to fund a rail network - light or otherwise - on its own. Better that we focus SkyTrain development on wider, regional connections between the cities of Metro Vancouver. Forcing all the transit growth south of the Fraser onto one single line doesn't strike me as the best path toward the future. Using words as charged as "cataclysmic" doesn't exactly strike me as reflecting a nuanced, incorporating approach... rather, it suggests that SkyTrain for Surrey is guided by ideology above practicality.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I was intitially interested, but soon realized that SkyTrain for Surrey's main message was similar to this Onion story