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TransLink is considering options to increase revenue to keep its trains running.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

As Lower Mainland transit systems struggle to find revenues, some observers are suggesting making more retail use of the empty spaces in SkyTrain and Canada Line stations to generate cash to keep the trains running.

Passengers on either line can already buy Jugo Juice products, floral arrangements, newspapers, candy and other products at small stores in stations along the two lines, but the thinking is that the system could be more ambitiously opened to other options, echoing the variety offered in transit systems elsewhere in Canada and abroad.

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts says there's a need for new transit revenues beyond taxes and fares, and options for garnering such funds include both opening retail stores and building outlets on TransLink-owned property along the commuter lines.

"It's an opportunity to add to the pot and should certainly be capitalized upon," Ms. Watts said in an interview. "Where I've travelled around the world and back east, there are opportunities where retail has been introduced into the stations and is getting that revenue generation and those lease rates are certainly a stream of revenue.

"Any opportunity is one that TransLink should certainly go after."

But she said TransLink officials believe "it will generate some revenue, but not as much as people might think."

Ms. Watts noted there are four SkyTrain stations in north Surrey that were built 20 years ago, and not really designed to capitalize on retail investment.

"Just in the physical aspect, there's not a lot of opportunities," she said, but noted TransLink owns land in the Newton Town Centre area that could be rezoned and redeveloped for retail. "It's not just about putting a station there, but how we add value to that."

In Vancouver, City Councillor Geoff Meggs agreed there are opportunities for TransLink to pursue though the issue has not been "looked at very hard." Mr. Meggs said the issue of transit-oriented development is notable given a looming provincially mandated referendum on revenue options for funding transit. "Of course it's a good idea," he said of expanded retail. "Nothing stands in the way of it right now."

Senior TransLink officials were unavailable for comment on the issue. However, the authority released a list of 15 retailers now operating in stations, including two flower shops, four International News operations, several convenience stores and two coffee shops. Total 2012 revenue for TransLink from these retailers was $695,927 or 0.15 per cent of total transit revenue, up from $558,070 in 2011.

The Toronto Transit Commission, by contrast, disclosed that there are 120 concession locations in the 69 stations along its 68.3 kilometres of track, including banking services, dry cleaners, newsstands, and McDonald's and Tim Hortons outlets that are expected to generate $4.2-million in concession revenue in 2013.

By comparison, there are 91.9 kilometres of track between SkyTrain and the Canada Line and 63 stations between the two systems.

Officials with InTransit BC, contracted to operate the Canada Line as part of the public-private partnership, declined to release details about retail and development around the line. In a pair of e-mails, InTransit's CEO Doug Allen said retail is a "very small" component of the system and that he would not elaborate because of confidentiality with private firms offering retail. There are several Jugo Juice outlets in the Canada Line as well as a florist.

Retailers in both Lower Mainland transit lines approached by The Globe and Mail declined interviews on the issue or any aspect of their operations.

Larry Frank, a professor at the school of community and regional planning at the University of British Columbia, said Vancouver has one of the most underdeveloped station areas in North America around its transit system.

"Transit stations are typically hubs of retail activity. Every kind of thing you can think of are in transit stations – obviously a wide range of food vendors, basic services for business functions, communications, barber shops. Quick stuff you can get in and out of. All that stuff typically is integrated in other cities."

He said Canada Line went in with "shells" of stations necessitated by the rush to complete it before the 2010 Olympics and it appears further development was an afterthought. But he gives top marks to co-operation between the city and its partners for the Marine Gateway housing development – an 825,000-square-foot project beside the Marine Drive Canada Line station that will include food outlets and a cinema.

"We're looking at a huge opportunity with way-underdeveloped stations. It's a huge resource wasted as far as I can tell." He added that housing around stations could also be part of the mix. "I just want to see a culture develop around much more mixed use – retail, housing, mixed housing types – in and around and above stations."