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A SkyTrain commuter train travels into downtown Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday April 11, 2012. (DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail)
A SkyTrain commuter train travels into downtown Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday April 11, 2012. (DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail)

Transportation

A better Surrey hinges on halted transit plans Add to ...

For Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, the vision has long been clear: family-oriented neighbourhoods and community events, bustling town centres and walkable urban areas. With time and strategic planning, Surrey would shed its rough reputation, growing into a vibrant metropolitan core of the region, rivalling Vancouver.

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While there is little disagreement about the good Ms. Watts has done in her three terms so far – she received 80 per cent of the vote in the last civic election – Surrey’s future remains unclear. Much of its development hinges on the promise of transit expansion and improvements, and TransLink’s mounting financial woes threaten to derail plans.

In recent weeks, the transportation authority announced it will sell off property and halt all expansion plans, with the exception of the Evergreen Line connecting Coquitlam to Vancouver, until more funding is secured. Projects now in limbo include rapid buses over the Port Mann Bridge and along King George Boulevard.

A permanent cancellation of such projects would have a “huge impact” on Surrey, Ms. Watts said.

“Now you’ve got half of the region car-dependent, which is just going to cause congestion,” she said. “We want to make sure that we have multi-modal options, whether it’s SkyTrain, whether it’s at-grade rail, bicycles or things like that. That’s the direction we need to head in. If there’s no bus across the Port Mann, and if it’s not connected to any of the other systems, it’s going to be a mess.”

Brent Toderian, former Vancouver director of planning and current urbanism consultant, takes it further, noting a weak transit infrastructure compromises a city’s ability to grow into a sustainable pattern.

“Regions tend to grow regardless… but transit is the key to it growing well,” he said. “It can often be the difference between separated land use, car-oriented patterns and a more compact, sustainable, transit-oriented pattern.”

He calls Ms. Watts’ vision of a light rail transit network spanning the city – from Surrey City Centre out to Guildford, Newton and Langley – a “major catalyst for sustainable growth.”

“It’s a bit of chicken-and-egg: If you project the land usage that would support LRT investment, then you can help make that investment a reality,” Mr. Toderian said. “On the other hand, if you make that commitment to LRT, it can actually stimulate the kind of land usage you’re projecting.”

Gordon Price, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, believes it is “probably one of the worst moments in human history” to compromise transit expansion, insisting it would lock the south of the Fraser region into car dependency.

“Whether you’re looking at it through the lens of greenhouse gases and climate change, or the volatility in the price of oil, or the cost of land and affordability of housing, everything would suggest that you have a win-win-win if you design your region around transit,” he said. “This is not an anti-car thing; my argument is about car dependence.”

In 2011, TransLink generated $1.3-billion in revenue but spent $52.4-million more than that, requiring the agency to draw on financial reserves built up from taxation measures and fare increases in the mid-2000s. At its current rate, the reserves are expected to run out in 2016.

“We were very, very clear at the time that those financial reserves would be enough to sustain the system that we were building up until 2012, 2013,” said TransLink spokesman Ken Hardie. “But by that point, we would have to make some decisions about how we would sustain that, and more important decisions if we are to grow.”

The reasons for TransLink’s dilemma are many: Higher gas prices have led to increased ridership, but also increased operational costs and less gas tax revenue. The Golden Ears Bridge is generating less revenue than expected, falling $4-million short of its $37.8-million goal in 2011.

As well, Metro Vancouver mayors reversed course on a temporary property tax that would have helped pay for planned improvements through 2013-14, after the provincial government ruled it would not consider a vehicle levy or carbon tax as an alternative funding source afterward, ordering an audit of the agency instead.

Transportation commissioner Martin Crilly rejected a proposed 12.5-per-cent fare increase.

With few other places to go, TransLink has been forced to turn inward to find savings – to cannibalize itself to ward off starvation.

“TransLink is caught in the crossfire in political anti-tax strategizing – a legacy of refusal by both Liberal and NDP governments to follow through on commitments made,” Mr. Price said.

He pointed to the Port Mann Bridge as an example: When the project was first announced, a major selling point was that it would support a rapid bus line and eventually light rail. At present, it will open with no transit.

“Our history has shown that building sustainable communities around transit is an effective strategy … yet provincial governments are failing to support a sufficient and sustainable funding source, putting the region’s vision in jeopardy,” he said. “This will have tragic consequences for the fastest growing part of our region [the south of the Fraser] – the reverse scenario of when Vancouver rejected freeways and built itself around transportation choice.”

TransLink continues to present its financial situation to provincial and municipal staff, says agency spokesman Jason Martin. It is also working to develop a plan to move forward should there be no replacement for the temporary property tax source.

Where can TransLink find funds? Here’s five suggestions

In recent weeks, B.C. transportation agency TransLink announced it must sell off property and put expansion projects on hold until it acquires sustainable funding sources. Where should the funds come from?

Christy Clark, B.C. Premier

Ms. Clark has rejected imposing new levies, instead ordering an audit of the agency to find savings. “We are not going to find it through a vehicle levy or other sources, we are going to find it within TransLink,” she told reporters in March, noting the province had found “very significant savings for taxpayers” in an audit of BC Hydro. “Whenever you’re looking at a big organization that spends $1-billion a year, you can find savings.”

Dianne Watts, Surrey Mayor

Ms. Watts has called for a “fair and equitable tolling policy” across the region: lower tolls significantly – to 75 cents or $1 across more bridges and roads, and not just those connecting the south of the Fraser region.

Brent Toderian, former Vancouver director of planning and current urbanism consultant

Mr. Toderian maintains the government should fund transit, as money invested in it cuts costs elsewhere – drivers, truckers, transport. “Upper levels of government get over 92 cents of every tax dollar, and they have to provide stable, predictable funding for long-term strategic transit expansion,” he said. “They are the only ones who can afford it. It’s one of the most strategically effective things they could spend our tax dollars on: smart investment. Cities can then focus on investments for consistent walkability, and bikeability.”

Peter Fassbender, Langley Mayor and vice-chair of the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation

Mr. Fassbender believes in an “integrated policy” that focuses on a user-pay philosophy. “Road pricing and road tolling, I think, are two key elements of what I think is an equitable and fair way to look at transportation needs throughout the region.”

Gordon Price, city program director at Simon Fraser University

Like Mr. Toderian, Mr. Price believes the provincial government should foot the bill for a service that is a collective good. “I would say the carbon tax, to me, seems to be the drop-dead obvious one,” he said. “Why can’t the provincial government say, rather than the tax cut we were promised, in this region, that money will go to transit? Or, we will have a carbon tax on the region, or an increase on the gas tax plus an increase in property tax. I think the regional mayors should be realistic about this.”

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