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editorial

Less transit for more money – it’s the Canadian way.

The opening instalment of what has become a movie franchise debuted in Toronto nearly a decade ago, when a plan to build light rail transit (LRT) in Scarborough was transformed into a shorter, more expensive subway, serving fewer people. Spoiler alert: nothing’s been built, and the bill is still rising.

Audiences drawn to transit tragicomedies will want to catch the sequel, “Skytrain to Nowhere,” set in the Metro Vancouver municipality of Surrey. A sprawling suburban city of more than half-a-million people, it covers about as large an area as Vancouver, Richmond and Burnaby combined.

Surrey was designed for the car. Its population density is less than a third of that of Vancouver’s, but it’s growing fast. If most trips continue to be made by car, gridlock will ensue.

In a 2012 report on transit options, a dozen scenarios involving dedicated bus lanes, LRT and SkyTrain were proposed. The best plan – a cost-effective approach for covering ground, moving people and cutting emissions – appeared to be the bus system.

However, the regional mayors’ council for transit in 2014 endorsed an 11-kilometre LRT running south and east from Surrey Centre, where the SkyTrain line from Vancouver ends. At $1.6-billion, it wasn’t cheap, and it wasn’t perfect, but it was a good second choice. It gained provincial and federal financial backing, and construction was poised to begin.

Re-enter Doug McCallum. First elected Surrey’s mayor in 1995, he won two subsequent elections but lost in 2005. Last fall, he returned to office with a promise to ditch the LRT plan in favour of the worst option – extending a SkyTrain line through Surrey to Langley. Mr. McCallum claimed this could be done for $1.6-billion.

Spoiler alert: Not even close.

This came as a shock to no one, as the transit authority, TransLink, had said the SkyTrain would be almost double the cost. It turns out the existing $1.6-billion will build less than half of the SkyTrain line Mr. McCallum imagined. This truncated version will end in Surrey’s Fleetwood neighbourhood, where only 63,000 people live. The Vancouver region’s mayors, however, voted for this plan in late July. Never mind that the 2012 report said that, built in stages, a single SkyTrain line was the worst of all ideas.

To finish the SkyTrain, a lot more money is needed. The mayors’ council has already started asking the federal and provincial governments for another handout. If Ottawa and Victoria deliver, that would not be good news. SkyTrain will suck resources away from needed improvements to other transit routes within Surrey, covering areas where the majority of the city’s people live.

In this case, a SkyTrain line simply cements suburban sprawl. It’s an expensive half-measure. Among the opponents of the plan is the Surrey Board of Trade. It wants the LRT revived – it could have already been under construction – and calls SkyTrain, an elevated subway, “antiquated, noisy and expensive.”

The fact remains that the best vehicle for a sprawled suburb like Surrey is the bus, with increases to existing service and dedicated bus lanes. But between the LRT and Skytrain, the LRT plan is clearly superior, serving more people at lower cost.

LRT is the backbone of transit in Calgary, another sprawling city. Its CTrain network is about to be nearly doubled in length by the $4.9-billion, 46-kilometre Green Line, expected to begin construction in 2020. Montreal is building a huge new light-rail network. The $6.3-billion REM project will cover 67-kilometres with 26 stations; the first leg will open in 2021, with the entire system finished by 2023.

Extending regional transit deep into Montreal’s suburbs didn’t involve extending the city’s Metro system. That would have been prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, and wasn’t justified by density.

Meanwhile in Toronto, transit has once again been upended, this time by Ontario Premier Doug Ford. His government has taken a giant eraser to a carefully drafted plan for a subway Relief Line and replaced it with a napkin sketch.

As for Surrey, it’s looking at the worst of all possible outcomes. Ottawa and Victoria should reject calls for additional funding. Instead, Vancouver-area mayors should take a hard look at their SkyTrain fantasy. This film’s plot doesn’t make sense. The script needs a rewrite.