The full cancellation of all light rail transit (LRT) projects in Surrey is one of the key promises Doug McCallum is making if he is re-elected as the Mayor of Surrey. He is part of a new yet-to-be-named civic party that plans to announce its slate of City Council candidates over the coming weeks.
McCallum was Surrey’s Mayor for nine years between 1996 and 2005, until he was defeated by the Surrey First party’s Dianne Watts, who paved the way for LRT during her final years in office. LRT planning, of course, continued under the leadership of Linda Hepner, who announced earlier this year she is not seeking re-election.
Instead of spending $1.65 billion on the 10.5-km-long Surrey Newton-Guildford LRT (SNG LRT), which runs along 104 Avenue and King George Boulevard and would be privately operated, he would redirect that funding towards extending SkyTrain’s Expo Line along Fraser Highway from King George to Langley Centre.
McCallum, who was previously the chair of TransLink’s board of directors during the Canada Line’s planning phase, then known as the Richmond Airport Vancouver (RAV) Line project, believes the required ridership for SNG LRT will not materialize, and that the route would be better served with more buses at a far lower cost than light rail.
“One of the key things when you build rapid transit is you need to have proper ridership on it. The ridership is what brings in the operating revenue, and the revenue from the ridership at least supports some of the initial construction cost,” McCallum told Daily Hive in an interview.
“The ridership for the proposed light rail route along 104 Avenue and King George Boulevard… well, there is nothing there. There’s literally no ridership.”
While transit south of the Fraser generally sees much less ridership than routes north of the Fraser, the 96 B-Line running along King George Boulevard and 104th Avenue is actually the fastest growing B-Line on the network, according to TransLink. This route, which will be replaced by the SNG LRT, saw five million boardings in 2017 – up from 3.4 million in 2014. This translates to about 15,000 average weekday boardings in 2017, and this number has increased to about 18,000 over the first half of the year.
The chosen technology of a street-level train going through a car-oriented municipality also does not make sense, says McCallum. Not only would LRT create conflicts with cars on the road, but its slower speeds would not compel residents to drive less and ride transit more often.
“I’ve travelled to different parts of the world and seen light rail operate, especially in France and Italy,” he said. “I’m very familiar and knowledgeable on costs of systems to move people, and what I have found is that light rail for small, compact cities in Europe works well. It works well for smaller and more compact cities than Surrey. LRT doesn’t make sense at all.”
McCallum suggested the current City Council may be attracted by the aesthetics of street-level LRT. He drew comparisons with the Canada Line’s planning process when Richmond City Council wanted the No. 3 Road segment of the rail rapid transit line between Bridgeport Station and Richmond Centre to be a separate, off-shoot, street-level LRT.
At the time, Richmond was apprehensive over the possible visual intrusion created by elevated concrete columns and guideways on the municipality’s main thoroughfare, without consideration on the impact to the functionality of the new RAV train system.
“They had a problem in Richmond, in that they didn’t want elevated tracks and they couldn’t go below ground because of the water levels, so they were looking at some sort of street-level light rail system separate from the rest of the Canada Line,” he said.
“So we did the study on that idea, and it found that the congestion that light rail would create on No. 3 Road… it was just going to be a complete disaster. So we said to Richmond, ‘we’re sorry Richmond, we will build you a train but we are going to have to elevate it like SkyTrain in a lot of places.’ Richmond didn’t like it being above ground, so we said you didn’t have a choice and if you don’t agree, we’ll just take it to the airport. In the end, Richmond agreed elevated was the best way.”
McCallum describes SNG LRT as a “nightmare” for traffic upon completion, with the intermixing of light rail with traffic at intersections.
If re-elected in October, McCallum says he will ask the Mayors’ Council to reverse plans on the SNG LRT and cancel all light rail transit projects.
Although the $58 million budgeted for SNG LRT planning and pre-construction work has already largely been spent, there is still a window of possibility for the project’s cancellation as the start of the procurement stage will not happen until later this year, and construction contracts are not expected to be signed until early-2019.
If LRT is cancelled, attention and funding would be diverted to the seamless SkyTrain extension of the Expo Line along Fraser Highway from King George Station to Langley Centre.
This route, which is currently planned by TransLink and the City of Surrey as a street-level light rail for the second phase of the South of Fraser LRT Project, is roughly 16 km in length.
McCallum says there is significantly more ridership potential with a SkyTrain extension as it would help complete the backbone of the regional transit network.
“With SkyTrain, you are connecting Surrey to the whole area of Metro Vancouver. The original plan even 20 or 30 years ago was to build SkyTrain from downtown Vancouver to Langley,” he said. “That was the original plan when the City of Surrey looked at building rail rapid transit, before SkyTrain was extended across the Fraser River from New Westminster after Expo ’86.”
In fact, he says, the southern terminus of the Expo Line at King George Station is even angled and aligned with Fraser Highway because of the expectation that SkyTrain would eventually be extended to Langley.
McCallum asserts the Fraser Highway corridor has far higher ridership potential than the Newton-Guildford corridor because of all of the employment and activity centres that already exist, in addition to the potential for future development.
This includes the RCMP E-Division Headquarters, which is the hub for the RCMP’s presence in BC, and the emerging town centre in Fleetwood, which he says is one of Surrey’s fastest growing areas. Further east, a station serving the Clayton would be the solution to the area’s growing transportation issues.
The Expo Line would then terminate in the downtown area of Langley, where McCallum says there is already development activity that would only intensify with the arrival of SkyTrain.
TransLink previously said the technology for the Fraser Highway rail rapid transit project had not been determined, but over recent months there has been a shift to calling it ‘LRT’ in updates and reports.
As part of the 10-year transit expansion plan’s Phase Two investments, about $36 million had been allocated towards the preliminary planning of the Fraser Highway LRT line, the potential Burnaby Mountain Gondola, and the rail rapid transit extension between Arbutus Street and UBC.
Construction on the Fraser Highway LRT line could begin shortly after the planned 2024 opening of the SNG LRT.
“I think the Mayors’ Council listened to Surrey Council, which was pushing so hard for light rail. So they thought maybe that’s what Surrey wants, and because of that reason we should do it,” McCallum added.
“I don’t know how they got to pushing for light rail… if you look at the majority of people in Surrey, even in a number of polls, if you just go out to the communities, nobody wants light rail. They want SkyTrain down Fraser Highway.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated.