Federal minister Catherine McKenna emphasizes importance of transit-oriented growth

Jul 20 2021, 3:35 am

So much of Metro Vancouver’s urban growth is now anchored around the stations of the expanding SkyTrain network.

That was ever more apparent for Catherine McKenna, the federal minister of infrastructure and communities, while she was in the region earlier this month to announce the federal government’s $1.3-billion contribution to the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain extension of the Expo Line.

Daily Hive Urbanized caught up with the minister after the announcement on her ride back from Surrey Central Station to downtown Vancouver.

“It’s really amazing to see what a difference public transit makes to housing. I don’t think that people always make the link that when you make public transit, people are able to move to different areas quickly,” said McKenna, who emphasized the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by clustering more of the population and economic activity around SkyTrain.

The basic principle of transit-oriented development growth is that more people living and working next to public transit are more likely to use the service if it is of high quality, with the attributes of high frequencies, a sufficient-to-high capacity, and a competitive travel time against driving.

As well, this density also serves to support the ongoing cost of operating the service.

“Metro Vancouver can be quite expensive if you’re living in downtown and a lot of people are moving out, so great transit is part of the solution if they’re working or going to school downtown. It makes a huge difference,” she said.

McKenna says the inclusion of policies that catalyze affordable housing, not just any transit-oriented housing, is a top priority for the federal government’s public transit strategy.

metrotown skyline brentwood burnaby skytrain f2

The Burnaby Metrotown skyline from the lounge at Cineplex VIP Cinemas Brentwood at The Amazing Brentwood. Transit-oriented developments are captured in this photo. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

To support this strategy, agreements are also in place with local governments to ensure densification is achieved in exchange for funding from senior governments to build the $3.95-billion Surrey-Langley project and the $2.8-billion Millennium Line Broadway Extension to Arbutus.

A Supportive Policies Agreement is in place between between the City of Surrey and TransLink for the Surrey-Langley project, requiring the municipal government to adopt transit-oriented densification principles along the corridor. The city is currently in the process of creating new neighbourhood plans for a wide radius around each of the stations.

Additionally, the municipality is required to consult with both the public transit authority and the provincial government on the suitability of development applications near the future stations.

“The City will seek TransLink and the Province’s input as early as possible in the planning process on applications for developments in close proximity to Surrey-Langley SkyTrain stations to achieve the best possible land use, housing, transportation and design outcomes. The precise geographic limit will be agreed upon by the City and TransLink based on planning considerations such as transit passenger movements, other transportation mode needs and government owned lands,” reads the agreement.

“TransLink will provide input to the City on proposed developments in close proximity to Surrey-Langley SkyTrain Stations to ensure the best possible land use, housing, transportation and design outcomes, allocating staff and in-kind resources consistent with the City’s development review schedules and sufficient for their desired level of involvement.”

Fraser Highway SkyTrain Corridor Planning Areas

Approved study area for the Fraser Highway SkyTrain Corridor Planning Areas review. (City of Surrey)

Langley City at the future easternmost terminus of the Expo Line is also in the midst of rethinking its city centre for transit-oriented developments, but the potential height of the buildings will be restricted due to the very close proximity of Langley Regional Airport, which is under a kilometre east of the city centre’s eastern border.

TransLink also has an agreement with the City of Vancouver for transit-oriented densification on the Broadway Corridor to support ridership, and regional affordable housing and economic objectives. The 2018 agreement stipulates the municipal government will align itself with “the principles of the Transit-Oriented Communities Design Guidelines in the planning, design, and implementation” by permitting “the concentration of homes, jobs, and key activities within a short walk of the stops for the Project at a level appropriate to support the transit investment.”

The municipal government’s interpretation of this mandate will be made clearer later this year when the draft Broadway Plan is released.

Business cases conducted on a transit project to estimate its costs against its benefits have been a critical step for local governments and public transit authorities to seek funding from senior governments.

Detailed planning including the business case has yet to be performed for the eventual Millennium Line extension from Arbutus to the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) campus. For this reason, with so much up in the air, the federal government did not promise funding for the multi-billion dollar construction of this SkyTrain project, but it has committed to covering 40% of the cost of the business case.

TransLink previously indicated the business case stage of detailed planning for the UBC SkyTrain will cost between $30 million and $40 million.

“Our role is really looking at how we get more and better public transit built, but we need to be working with the local communities. They know where the transit should go, where the lines should go, and also working with the provinces,” said McKenna.

“It is really about looking for a strong partnership, and now we’re very focused on making sure as part of our investments that we have affordable housing and you maximize the benefits to the local community, you minimize the impact to the environmental. These are all the components of great public transit.”

McKenna, who began her time in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet as the federal minister of environment and climate change, announced last month she will not run in the next federal election, which is speculated for Fall 2021.

surrey langley skytrain route map stages

Map of the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain Extension. (TransLink)

UBC SkyTrain

Map route of the proposed Millennium Line extension to UBC. (UBC)

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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