Thursday, March 15, 2012

By the Light of the Rails

The advantage of being several thousand kilometers from Toronto is that aside from freaks out here like me who read the Toronto Star, only the news that's of significant importance and affect makes it this far. Thankfully the light rail antics of hizzoner da mayor don't fall into that, since whether or not Toronto builds any of those lines will have no real impact anywhere west of Thunder Bay. Given that, it's actually rather comforting to see municipal leaders on this end of the country giving an honest look at light rail, rather than hooking the pantograph to an ideological lightning rod to score some cheap political points.

Earlier this week, Surrey mayor Dianne Watts used her state-of-the-city address to reiterate her calls for the installation of a comprehensive light rail network in British Columbia's second-largest city, a city which remains firmly rooted in the twentieth century in terms of higher-order transit. That something needs to be done is undeniable - over the next few decades, estimates have Surrey's population outstripping Vancouver's, and Surrey barely has the road capacity to serve its current population. What's more, building purely with a focus to the automobile, catering to the driver above all else, only sets up Surrey for a long and painful fall should that mode end up losing the primacy it has commanded for decades now.

Personally, I'd like to see light rail go in the ground down in Surrey. Without a higher-order transit system to tie it together and offer a transportation alternative that's more reliable than buses, Surrey will remain a place of low-density sprawl, spread out and disconnected from itself. It's not as if Surrey would be going it alone, either. When you look at all those cities in the United States and Canada west of the Mississippi, Vancouver is one of two that doesn't rely on light rail exclusively. Los Angeles is the other one, and even it has invested far more in the expansion of its light rail network than its subways; it's even got its own Expo Line set to open this year. Unlike in Toronto, where it's easy for people who aren't deeply familiar with the situation to equate light rail with streetcars, Metro Vancouver is surrounded by examples of the alternative.

And yet...

One of the Muni Metro's hybrid heavy streetcar/light rail trains moves folks through San Francisco.

Light rail isn't politicized out here yet, and right now there's no worry that it will be; in a manner befitting the Mississauga of the West, Mayor Dianne Watts crushed her opponents last year with a commanding eighty-one percent of the vote; Rob Ford may talk about mandates from here to Siberia, but eight out of every ten is one hell of a mandate. Sure, there's always the chance that some challenger will rise up between now and 2014 and attempt to use light rail as a wedge issue, but without local, concrete examples to distort like the so-called "St. Clair disaster" in Toronto, it's doubtful someone would go particularly far with that.

If someone did, though, I already know who'd be lining up behind them. The folks at SkyTrain for Surrey are still up to their old tricks, still describing light rail as "cataclysmic" with a straight face, still steadfast in their conviction that Surrey will not be property served by anything less than SkyTrain. In this, I see early parallels to what's going on now in Toronto - the only difference is in the different prestige modes. In Toronto it's the subway that's sexy, so Scarborough wants a subway. Here it's the SkyTrain that's the most important part of the system, and so it's what everyone wants. These attitudes have already had influence on the Metro Vancouver transit network - the original plan for the Evergreen Line had it using LRT rather than SkyTrain technology - but thankfully they were dealt with in a manner befitting calm, responsible adults, and the well here is still free of poison.

Surrey needs transit, yes. But is an expensive series of SkyTrain extensions the best way to deliver it? Personally, I think Surrey would be better served by a comprehensive light rail network capable not only of delivering riders to the SkyTrain but speeding people through Surrey as well. The money that would have otherwise gone to stringing more elevated tracks along King George Highway would, I think, be better spent on system upgrades, like extending Expo Line stations so that they can accommodate even bigger trains. I mean, when it's standing room only on a train to Surrey at 10 o'clock at night in Columbia Station, I have to wonder how far away we are from hitting capacity ceilings.

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