Lower Mainland mayors grudgingly voted Thursday to move ahead with work on the design and business case for a Surrey-to-Langley SkyTrain line, in spite of concerns about whether it makes sense to proceed with a line that has only half the funding required.
Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum, in a rare move at a meeting of the regional mayors on the transit authority, deployed an infrequently used tactic of having a weighted vote – where the vote is calculated not just by a straight count of the 23 council members but on the basis of relative populations in each city – to block efforts by other mayors to add qualifiers to the staff work plan.
He got support from Vancouver, Delta, and City of Langley mayors to do that, which was enough to tie and defeat efforts by other mayors.
Mayors and council representatives from both the City and District of North Vancouver, Richmond, West Vancouver, Pitt Meadows, Belcarra and Anmore all expressed concerns about plunging ahead with a project when it’s not clear how much of it can be built for the $1.6-billion that had been approved for the now-cancelled light-rail line.
Mr. McCallum says the whole line can be built for that amount, but TransLink staff say that’s unlikely.
“We need to identify where the money will come from for an amount beyond the $1.6-billion available before we approve anything,” said Doug Little from the District of North Vancouver.
But TransLink’s chair and vice-chair, Jonathan Coté from New Westminster and Jack Froese from the Township of Langley, emphasized that TransLink was always going to have to figure out where it was going to get the money from for Phase 3 of the 10-year transit plan.
Surrey was due to get $3.5-billion in total funding from the $7.5-billion plan, which has had committed money from all three levels of government only for the first two phases.
Many have made their irritation plain since Mr. McCallum’s decision after he was elected in October to up-end years of planning and consensus. Those mayors said Thursday they want a commitment from Surrey that it would pay back the $56-million spent preparing to build the light-rail project.
And some questioned whether Surrey residents really support the abrupt change in transit plans.
Mr. McCallum insisted they did.
“I can assure you the citizens of Surrey support in overwhelming numbers SkyTrain. The other parties campaigned on light rail. The results of the election is a referendum on which type of system the residents of Surrey want,” he said.
Mr. McCallum was elected with 41 per cent of the votes cast in Surrey last October, but the election’s low turnout means only 13.5 per cent of eligible voters supported him.
The transit agency vote means it will move ahead with spending $20-million and 15 months to explore the design and construction issues for the line, as well as develop the business plan needed to get the federal and provincial governments to switch over the money they had committed to the previously approved light-rail line.
TransLink will also suspend the plans it had to run a rapid bus along Fraser Highway starting next September, since it might only run for three years before construction starts for the SkyTrain line.
Mr. McCallum continues to say the 16-kilometre line can be built for the $1.6-billion already in hand.
But Mr. Coté said it's unlikely that the line can go much further than the Fleetwood or Clayton Heights neighbourhoods on the eastern side of Surrey.
TransLink chief executive Kevin Desmond said staff are sticking by the earlier estimate that it will cost $2.9-billion.
He noted that the Evergreen Line, an 11-kilometre line built for $1.4-billion, got committed construction bids more than five years ago, at a time when construction costs were considerably lower.
Thursday’s vote still doesn’t mean mayors have approved the new line, only that they have authorized staff to go ahead and do planning work.