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Surrey mayor on provincial agendas: Don’t forget city-building

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts says tolls are an example of disjointed government policy.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

Dianne Watts is remaining non-partisan in the upcoming provincial election, at least publicly. But that's not stopping the mayor of Surrey – B.C.'s second-largest urban area – from being candid about what she thinks her city needs from the province.

Surrey is expanding rapidly. The city is on pace to become the province's biggest in the next decade, and 15,000 new businesses have opened since 2005.

But with that expansion come challenges, ones Ms. Watts says any new provincial government, Liberal or NDP, needs to seriously consider.

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On the eve of the provincial campaign, The Globe and Mail sat down with Ms. Watts to talk about the issues she wants the leaders to address.

The provincial election campaign is about to begin on Tuesday. What do cities, specifically Surrey and others in the Lower Mainland, need from the provincial government?

If we're going to move this region forward … any agenda has to align with the cities. So if their [the government's] whole agenda is families first and the jobs plan, well, you need transportation and the movement of goods. So you can't ignore that piece. So when we look at how we're moving goods around the region or how we're dealing with our ports … there's got to be some critical thinking in terms of working collectively together on these issues.

Do you see that happening?

No … I go back to tolling as an example. To toll specific pieces of infrastructure [Port Mann Bridge and Golden Ears Bridge] at a very high rate is not fair and equitable. And I understand that's their [the government's] policy, but it makes no sense when you've spent billions of dollars on the Sea to Sky Highway but there's no tolling there. It's that disjointedness that's really frustrating.

What else needs to change?

The current structure is that TransLink and the independent board, which is unelected, develop a plan. I want to be clear, that the people on the board are professional and are very intelligent and I have a lot of respect for them. That's not the issue … The plan comes to the mayors' council, and by provincial legislation you either approve it or not. You can't make any changes to it. And then you have to fund that plan you have no input into … We got six kilometres of SkyTrain that was done 20 years ago – and that's all we got.

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In that vein, do you think Surrey has been shortchanged?

I think no one expected Surrey to grow the way in which it has. Vancouver was always the epicentre, so the funding and the dollars and the infrastructure flowed there. What we're seeing is a definite shift in the region. We have a thousand to 1,200 people moving here into this city every month, and that's probably been for a decade … That's not to say they [the provincial government] haven't made investments, 'cause they have – half a billion dollars for the expansion of Surrey Memorial Hospital, we have those pieces of infrastructure. But I would think it would be prudent to be sitting down and saying, 'Okay, this is where 70 per cent of the region's future growth is coming ... we need to put some critical thinking around the high-growth areas.'

Do you see the NDP or the Liberals being more supportive of what you need?

I take a non-partisan approach. My No. 1 goal is to look after this city and do the very best I can do with this city.

But do you think a change to the NDP might be better for Surrey?

I don't know what the [NDP] platform is, so it's hard to comment on it. I don't know what they're planning on doing … There is a challenge when you have a change of government or change of minister. Because you spend a phenomenal amount of time on relationships dealing with government to ensure they're fulfilling their mandate and doing their job instead of downloading. That's a significant amount of work. So if the government is changing, we have to start from square one.

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Let's change gears and talk about crime. There's been a rash of murders this year in Surrey – 11 already. Is this a trend? What's happening?

I don't think it's a trend, I think it's an anomaly. Typically we have anywhere between six to eight murders a year … But when you have shifts occurring within the gang and drug trade – and there's been a few individuals that have been arrested and charged, and some have been targeted – what that does is that it creates a vacancy. So we now have shifts going on, then we have retaliation … The police are doing their job on the back end, but here's where the issue for me comes in: The demographic that commits the most crime, and this is well documented, are between the ages of 18 and 24 … It's a community issue, it's a family issue, it's a parent issue, it's an individual issue … Those issues are very complex and deeply rooted, so for the expectation that either government or law enforcement is going to fix that, that's never going to happen. It's got to start within the family unit and within the community.

Lots of talk about you taking over the provincial Liberals. Any truth to that?

That job's taken. … They [the Liberals] might win the election. John Cummins might be the next premier, who knows [laughing] … My focus is looking after the city of Surrey. For me it's been great because I don't think too many people have the opportunity very often to be at the helm when you're actually building a city.

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