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British Columbia Surrey mayor-elect Doug McCallum’s promise to push for SkyTrain threatens to upend 10-year transit plan

A SkyTrain travels through east Vancouver, on Oct. 22, 2018.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

A political fight over transit in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland is gearing up as the mayors-elect of Surrey and Vancouver push to rewrite the region’s painstakingly negotiated plan for public transportation, angering other mayors in the region.

At issue is the demand by Doug McCallum, mayor-elect of Surrey, to extend the elevated rapid transit SkyTrain through his city, rather than the agreed-upon, planned light-rail lines that would be cheaper but would be at road level, thereby reducing road space for vehicles.

Mr. McCallum has gotten the support of Vancouver’s mayor-elect Kennedy Stewart. The jostling has led one transit advocate to suggest the carefully negotiated plan for the whole region could fall into jeopardy, with Ottawa wanting to spend money on a firm transit project now, in advance of the federal election in the fall of 2019.

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But a SkyTrain line to Surrey, the fastest-growing community in British Columbia, would cost almost double the $1.65-billion that was committed to the LRT lines, meaning there would need to be extensive negotiations on how to find the extra money needed, even if all the mayors in the region agreed.

That isn’t going over well among some of the 21 mayors in the region, who have to work together on transit. Sixteen of them are new and none of them took part in the extensive negotiations five years ago when the then-leaders agreed to compromises to come up with the current 10-year plan that provides for light rapid rail.

Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said Monday he could not see himself supporting a request from Surrey for another billion dollars for a SkyTrain line to Langley, the easternmost suburb of Metro Vancouver, with regional taxpayers having to pay for likely a third of it.

“The first question is how much of the extra costs would be borne by Surrey?” Mr. Brodie said Monday. “Doug seems to think it would be borne by the region, but I don’t subscribe to that.”

He said if Mr. McCallum cancels the LRT lines, there will be many others in the region lined up to take the money for their projects.

Rendering of a light rapid rail on 104 Avenue in Surrey, B.C.

Surrey LRT

“There are rapid-transit projects all over the region that would receive those monies very well.”

Mr. McCallum campaigned on a promise to cancel two approved light-rapid-transit lines and instead ask the federal government to switch its funding commitment to SkyTrain, the subway-like rail lines that are mostly elevated above ground.

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Mr. McCallum said during the campaign the light-rail compromise won’t be efficient.

“The light rail is not a system for anybody in Metro,” he said during the campaign. “A huge area like Surrey, light rail’s not going to do anything.”

On Monday morning, after the election, he was on the radio saying the project could get started within two years.

Mr. Stewart has said he will support Mr. McCallum and has said he would help lobby federal politicians in Ottawa for the change.

“That’s what the electorate wants," Mr. Stewart said in an interview with The Globe and Mail on Sunday.

"I would definitely work with him [Mr. McCallum] on that and also the line to UBC. I’d be on a plane with Mayor McCallum in a minute to argue for this.”

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The incoming mayor for the City of North Vancouver, Linda Buchanan, said she would not support giving Surrey the additional money for a SkyTrain Line.

“I don’t want to spend more in a region that’s already got $1.65-billion. There’s no more money going around,” she said. “If he wants to give that up, yes, I would like it to come to the North Shore.”

She then listed some priorities that she would like to see for her city that are not part of the negotiated plan.

Peter Ladner, a former Vancouver councillor who is the chair of the region’s Better Transit and Transportation Coalition, a non-profit group of 135 organizations lobbying for continuing transit improvements, said he believes Surrey risks losing any chance of new transit for a decade and going to the back of the Canadian line for federal money if its new mayor insists on cancelling the two approved light-rapid-transit lines.

There has been no engineering or planning work for a Surrey SkyTrain line to Langley and that would take a minimum of two years. As well, a TransLink business-case study of the line to Langley pegged the cost for a SkyTrain system at $2.9-billion, almost double the currently committed $1.65-billion.

Instead, Mr. Ladner said he believes, the federal government would likely hand its portion of the committed money for the line to the next-most-ready project on the books.

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“If people in Surrey want to go to the back of the line, that’s their choice,” said Mr. Ladner, whose group put out a news release days before the election Saturday warning people about the consequences.

The first step for Mr. McCallum, if he wants to make a change, is to go to the TransLink mayors’ council and ask for the LRT project to be cancelled. Then he’d need to get agreement from the 20 other mayors on changing the current 10-year plan to add the SkyTrain line to Surrey.

Premier John Horgan said he will wait to see what comes of that.

“Certainly his first port of call on the mayors’ plan will be the mayors’ council, not to me, not to the Prime Minister. We’ll see how that goes, first and foremost, and then we’ll deal with that later,” the Premier said.

Outgoing mayor Richard Walton of the District of North Vancouver, who chaired the TransLink mayors’ council for many years, echoed Mr. Ladner’s concerns and added others.

“If you open up this whole thing, you may have nothing for 10 years,” he said.

And, he added, any change to the current 10-year plan that the council developed in 2014 would probably lead to a breakdown of agreement on the plan.

“If you start tinkering with one part of that deal, with all the new mayors elected … you bet they’re going to be talking about what they need for their region.”

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