TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond has provided some additional commentary to the decision arising in the City of Surrey to replace the light rail transit project (LRT) with a SkyTrain extension.
Speaking to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade on Thursday, Desmond said TransLink is committed to building “rapid transit in Surrey that is as fast as possible and works with the people of Surrey.”
“What I want to say to the people of Surrey is TransLink is going to be here for you,” he said, noting that TransLink is a “delivery organization” for policymakers.
“One way or another, we’re going to build rail in Surrey,” he emphasized.
Although the new Surrey City Council has voted in favour of the Fraser Highway SkyTrain to Langley replacing the Surrey Newton-Guildford (SNG) LRT, the final decision, of course, lies with the Mayors’ Council.
Desmond said the immediate task at hand will be to “bring everyone back and get everyone on the same page with the Mayors’ Vision moving forward,” given that there are 17 new mayors in the region, which he describes as “unprecedented.” It means the vast majority of the composition of the Mayors’ Council – comprised of 23 regional mayors – are new members.
“That in itself is a challenge because we need to bring everyone up to what the Mayors’ Vision was,” he said. “It was built in 2014 and adopted in 2015.”
“The light rail project could have done a lot of good things for Surrey. They had a vision that had been in place for years, and there is a desire from the City of Surrey and it became a policy with TransLink,” he continued. “But it was a community-shaping project and maybe it wasn’t understood well.”
He also noted that “SkyTrain is fantastic, it is a wonderful asset” and that if SkyTrain is built on the Fraser Highway, “it is going to be a wonderful asset as well.”
“But we still have to really embrace the entire rapid transit program that we have promised to Surrey, we promised 27 km of rapid transit and that can be bus rapid transit, light rail, or SkyTrain,” he added.
Desmond said it is conceivable the Fraser Highway SkyTrain will cost less than the estimated $2.9-billion, which includes a 25% contingency, but it cannot be done within the same $1.9-billion budget for LRT as suggested by new Surrey mayor Doug McCallum.
If SkyTrain is the will of the Mayors’ Council, this will be a project that TransLink will try to move forward. But any additional funding to realize SkyTrain depends on the federal and provincial governments.
“We had business cases delivered and signed off from both levels of government for Surrey light rail. Both the province and federal government are on record publicly. They are waiting for the region to decide what its priorities are,” he said.
“The signals we are getting from the senior levels of government [is] if this region wants to move in a different direction, senior levels of government will support this region in that direction. Those conversations are going to have to happen.”
The possibility of a public-private partnership (P3) to help fill the funding gap for SkyTrain was downplayed by Desmond, given that SkyTrain will be a continuous extension of the existing Expo Line, so “it doesn’t lend itself to the build, operate, and maintenance type” of partnership.
The SNG LRT was envisioned as a P3 project that would entail the private contractor operating the train system for the first seven years. The Canada Line is currently in its ninth year of a 35-year P3 contract with a private consortium led by Quebec engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.
Fundamentally, says Desmond, LRT in Surrey will not happen if the municipal government does not support it. TransLink and region will not force it upon the city.
“If the City of Surrey will not cooperate with that project, we can’t build the project,” said Desmond.
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