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Patrick Condon is the James Taylor Chair in Landscape and Liveable Environments at the University of British Columbia.

A Skytrain travels past the downtown skyline in Vancouver, on Monday October 22, 2018.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Our region is about to squander its last best hope for a sustainable future, by opting for a massively overpriced seven-kilometre extension of the Expo SkyTrain line. What’s worse: It’s an overpriced extension to a place most of us have never heard of: Fleetwood, Surrey.

Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum won the last election, in part, by promising he could stretch the $1.6-billion in secured transit funding for 10 kilometres (of much cheaper to build) surface light rail, for 14 kilometres of much more expensive elevated SkyTrain. He was, of course, proved wrong when the real costs came in. TransLink delivered the bad news last month: $1.6-billion would only pay for enough SkyTrain to reach Fleetwood, about seven kilometres away – only halfway to Langley City.

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Worse still, there is no funding even remotely in sight to extend the line from Fleetwood to Langley, meaning at best it might reach there some time in the late 2030s.

Sadly, the TransLink Mayor’s Council endorsed this misguided plan when Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, himself lusting for a breathtakingly expensive $7-billion Millennium Line extension to the University of British Columbia, backed up Surrey’s mayor in what could only be read as a “one hand washes the other” quid pro quo of support.

We simply cannot squander that much money, missing our chance to take intelligent action to secure a sustainable and affordable future for our region. The infrastructure funds we commit now must lay the spine for that more sustainable future.

Land use and sustainability always – and necessarily – follow our transportation infrastructure choices. In the 19th century, it was the extension of the streetcar and interurban lines that enabled transit-oriented growth. In the 20th century, it was the provincial and federal highway system that enabled explosive and sprawling auto-based growth.

But another two decades of auto-based growth will choke us in congestion and pollution. It is now both our opportunity and our responsibility to lay the spine for a more walkable, transit-based region. Fortunately, we can. And cheaply.

We can reactivate an existing 90-kilometre passenger rail line all the way from Surrey to Chilliwack for less than the cost of the seven-kilometre Fleetwood Express.

How is this possible? By reviving the still-available, provincially owned BC Hydro interurban rail line. This still-operational line connects every urban centre between Surrey and Chilliwack, as well as more than a dozen sites of higher education and a host of jobs centres employing tens of thousands.

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And best of all, it was only the “freight use rights” that were sold to Southern Rail and Canadian National when passenger use ceased, while the “master agreement” protected the passenger rights for public use in perpetuity. We could literally have rail passenger service from Surrey to Chilliwack reactivated in months, rather than the many decades our present path requires.

This existing rail line is completely separated from roads, with crossing gates already installed at major intersections. The full cost of improvements, including a dozen stations, a maintenance yard, additional crossing gates and numerous passenger vehicles, would be less than the $1.6-billion already in hand. Best of all, rail companies now manufacture hydrogen-powered, zero-greenhouse gas rail cars that cost only slightly more than diesel-powered cars.

So, what will it be? A 90-kilometre rail service for North Delta, Surrey’s industrial district, Newton, Cloverdale, Langley City and Township, two Kwantlen Polytechnic University campuses, numerous campuses of the University of the Fraser Valley, Trinity Western University, Gloucester, Abbotsford, Huntington, Vedder Crossing, Sardis and Chilliwack for a grand total of $1.6-billion or the seven-kilometre Fleetwood Express, added to the already at-capacity Expo Line.

It’s your choice, B.C.

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