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Premier designate Christy Clark is scrummed by the media after winning the Liberal Leadership election. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Premier designate Christy Clark is scrummed by the media after winning the Liberal Leadership election. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Clark kicks off $700-million Surrey hospital expansion Add to ...

Premier Christy Clark, musing about a sooner-than-later provincial election, is trying to neutralize an NDP line of attack over the long-awaited expansion of the Surrey Memorial Hospital by presiding over the groundbreaking of the project after a decade of promises.

In her first health-care announcement since being sworn in last week, Ms. Clark on Monday hoisted a shovel at the ceremony for the facility, estimated to cost about $700-million by its scheduled completion date of 2014.

The project is to add 151 new patient beds to Surrey Memorial, arrayed throughout an eight-storey critical-care tower, an ER five times larger than the current space, and a new perinatal centre for high-risk newborns.

The pieces of the project include the $512-million expansion, plus a $237-million Jim Pattison Outpatient Care and Surgery Centre. Ms. Clark billed the effort the largest health-care capital investment project ever started in B.C.

"This is becoming a reality. It's not just a promise. We are delivering on this promise," Ms. Clark told reporters after a brief ceremony that included Finance Minister Kevin Falcon - a Surrey-area MLA - and Health Minister Mike de Jong, among others.

NDP MLAs attending the ceremony were incredulous at the fanfare over something that has been promised so often before since the BC Liberals came to power in 2001.

Ms. Clark was pressed on why it had taken so long to get on with the expansion, badly needed due to dramatic population growth in Surrey.

"It takes a little while to build three-quarters of a billion dollars worth of capital," she said. "What you're seeing behind us? It doesn't happen just like that. Any politician will tell you : We wish we had the power to just snap our fingers and make things happen, but we don't. Sometimes it takes a little bit of time."

NDP health critic Sue Hammell said she was disappointed Ms. Clark would come to Surrey to make yet another announcement on the project after former premier Gordon Campbell promised a launch of the project by 2007 or 2008.

The Surrey-Green Timbers MLA said the project was long overdue. "We needed it yesterday. We needed it the day before yesterday."

Mike Farnworth, one of five candidates for the leadership of the B.C. New Democrats, this month proposed a plan for health care in Surrey that included the immediate fast tracking of the project.

Surrey-Fleetwood MLA Jagrup Brar said Monday's ceremony should have been the opening of the building. "There seems to be an effort to get some support in Surrey by making this groundbreaking announcement today," Mr. Brar said.

The eight Surrey ridings are equally divided between the BC Liberals and the BC NDP.

Ms. Clark said she has not made any final decisions about the timing of the next election, but told reporters she remains committed to moving it up from the current schedule of 2013.

"Voters need a chance to vote on the premier," Ms. Clark said. "I am delighted that I am the 35th premier in B.C.'s history, but I don't have a mandate from the people, I have a mandate from my party.

"So I want to go and get that mandate from the people."

But she said she does not know when the vote might be set, noting that 2011 is shaping up as a busy year with the June 24 HST referendum.

Ms. Clark promised to move the referendum from September to June 24, but the government has yet to take legislative steps to do so.

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