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The move to survey Surrey residents on transit options comes after Doug McCallum, seen here on July 7, 2014, was elected mayor last fall in part on a pledge to cancel plans for light rail in favour of a subway-like system that would be much more expensive.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Planners for the Greater Vancouver region’s transit authority are conducting extensive public consultations this month to discover what Surrey residents really want for new transit.

The move comes after Doug McCallum was elected mayor last fall in part on a pledge to cancel plans for light rail in favour of a subway-like system that would be much more expensive. Mr. McCallum maintains that’s what his city wants, but there is insufficient money to carry out his vision of an upgraded SkyTrain and cover all the routes that were originally promised.

TransLink officials are asking Surrey residents to speak for themselves. They will ask residents whether they support the SkyTrain option and what they think overall should be done to improve transit in Surrey and Langley.

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“It will help us understand what the public’s priorities are,” said Jeff Busby, TransLink’s director of the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain project.

The public consultations will take the form of open houses and online surveys. Those being consulted will have an array of choices that have high costs attached to them during the feedback period, which ends April 26.

At the moment, the TransLink mayors’ council has a 10-year approved plan that provides for $3.5-billion to build 27 kilometres of new rapid transit.

Until Mr. McCallum was elected, the plan was to build 27 kilometres of light-rail transit at street level; 16 kilometres on a line from Surrey to Langley and the remaining 11 kilometres on an L-shaped line with one arm going from central Surrey to Guildford in the east and another going to Newton to the south. That would cost $3.5-billion over two phases.

But if the Surrey-to-Langley line becomes SkyTrain, that uses up, according to preliminary estimates, at least $2.9-billion. That leaves $600 million for something serving the Guildford and Newton lines.

TransLink has only $1.6-billion available to spend for Surrey in the current phase. That means the first part of the SkyTrain line could likely be built only to about Fleetwood. That’s the neighbourhood on the eastern edge of central Surrey, which is on the border of a large swath of agricultural land that any line would have to cross before arriving at Cloverdale and then Langley.

Planners say they are looking now at how far the line can go, given the constrained budget of $1.6-billion they’re working with.

Surrey and Langley residents will be asked to indicate their preference among a wide range of choices.

The public feedback about support and options will go to the TransLink mayors’ council July 25, when the council decides whether to put the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain proposal forward as a business case to the federal and provincial governments.

TransLink planners acknowledged that they will need to provide information by then on what the potential ridership for the line will be, which is required as part of the business case.

At the moment, about 12,000 daily riders altogether use the two Langley buses that connect to Surrey on weekdays, which is typically not considered enough to support an expensive SkyTrain-type line.

The Evergreen Line that runs to Port Moody has the lowest ridership among the SkyTrain lines, but it still has about 37,000 riders a day. That suggests Langley would need to add considerably more density or convert a lot of car commuters to transit users to reach the same numbers.

“We’ll show [in the business case] how that changes over time,” said TransLink’s vice-president for planning and policy, Geoff Cross.

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Mr. Cross said that the earliest TransLink could start building the line is around 2021, if senior government approvals and procurement all went smoothly. It would open in 2025.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story provided an incorrect dollar figure for the money remaining for the Guildford and Newton lines; this version has been corrected.
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