Surrey’s desire to ditch years of work on a light-rail transit project in favour of a more expensive SkyTrain service caused fierce debate on Thursday at a meeting of the Vancouver region’s mayors, with one mayor suggesting Surrey should potentially lose all of its funding for either option.
Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum delivered a passionate speech at the three-hour meeting about respecting the wishes of the city’s residents. Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart supported Mr. McCallum throughout the meeting.
Already, millions have been spent on the $1.65-billion LRT line, which is due to start construction soon. TransLink, the region’s transit authority run by the mayors, estimated the SkyTrain option would cost $2.9-billion.
Mr. McCallum told reporters after the meeting he believed there was a way there could be no change in costs by switching the approved streetcar line between Surrey and nearby Langley to a SkyTrain line. He believes the construction costs for the SkyTrain could be trimmed by having work done 24/7 throughout the project, as well as running the line at ground level for part of the route.
Several mayors said Surrey should refund the agency for at least some of the money spent.
“There is potentially $50-[million] to $75-million spent already,” Langley Mayor Jack Froese said. “What portion of that is recoverable?”
North Vancouver Mayor Linda Buchanan suggested the mayors’ council should take back not just the $1.65-billion that has been committed for the first Surrey light-rail line, but the full $3.6-billion that had been planned for Surrey for both of its lines in this 10-year plan.
Ms. Buchanan was especially alarmed when Mr. McCallum asked for a weighted vote on a proposed amendment.
A weighted vote at the mayors’ council means Vancouver and Surrey, with only one or two other municipalities out of the 21, could get a motion passed. The council has typically used a one mayor-one vote system for its decisions to ensure broad consensus in the region.
The council’s new chair, New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Coté, said he hoped Vancouver and Surrey would not use a weighted-vote strategy. “Having four or five mayors drive this decision is not going to create a good environment.”
Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie noted Surrey’s plan threatened to upend a long-debated transit plan.
“We’ve been at this for six to eight years. We had unanimous support from the board, council and staff, and it was fully consulted with the public,” Mr. Brodie said. “Is staff really recommending that because of an election that … we switch?”
He reminded everyone Richmond City Council didn’t want an elevated rapid-transit line overshadowing one of its major streets, but that’s what happened anyway because the council decided it was too expensive to go underground or ground level.
The tension dissipated somewhat by the end of the meeting after mayors agreed to explore the complex financial and planning issues for a new SkyTrain line from Surrey to Langley. That fell short of a commitment to go ahead, despite Mr. McCallum’s contention afterward that he had been successful in bringing his colleagues onside.
“We switched the money that was allocated,” he said. “We have changed the rapid-transit project.”
But there hasn’t been a decision yet about switching the money. The mayors did agree to a suspension of any work on the LRT project and to a directive that staff research information on major questions surrounding the construction of a SkyTrain line.
As well, the mayors don’t have the power to move the money from one project to another, although they can indicate their wishes to other levels of government.
TransLink staff told the mayors, 16 of whom are new to the council because of recent civic elections, that it would likely take about two years to get approval from provincial and federal governments to have their money go to a SkyTrain line because that has to be approved by treasury boards.