How Surrey's mayor won the political long game on SkyTrain

Jul 16 2021, 11:57 am

Premier John Horgan completed his slow conversion from Surrey-Langley SkyTrain skeptic to reluctant cheerleader last week when he stood alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to accept $1.3 billion in new federal funding.

The cash from Ottawa was one of the last commitments needed to turn into reality a project that the premier at one time actively derided as fantasy.

“This is about collaboration and partnership,” Horgan said. “We are going to get SkyTrain to Langley and start to shape the Fraser Valley to be the place residents there today want to see and the residents of the future can benefit from. It’s again all about collaboration.”

Collaboration is not the word most people would use to describe the history of the Surrey SkyTrain line, which started as an incredulous promise by Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum in his 2018 election bid and was immediately opposed by politicians in Victoria and Ottawa who had their sights set on the cheaper light rail (LRT) option.

“We’re not scrapping LRT,” Horgan said at the time, digging in his heels. “End of the discussion.”

Horgan rallied Trudeau to endorse light rail in 2018, with both levels of government committing 80% of the $1.65 billion budget for Surrey-Newton-Guildford LRT.

LRT had a cheaper price tag but also admittedly a more inconvenient result — riders would have had to exit SkyTrain cars at King George Station, and switch over to a whole new system for the rest of the ride. Running on the street, it also had slower speeds.

Horgan openly taunted McCallum on the issue, saying the mayor could try and switch to the more expensive SkyTrain technology but he’d have to make do with the $1.65 billion LRT budget, and that wouldn’t get him anywhere near Langley.

“If Mr. McCallum wants to raise taxes in Surrey to fill the gap he’s welcome to,” Horgan said in late 2018. “I don’t think the people of Surrey will embrace that. But that’s the only way there’s going to be more money. It’s going to come out of his pocket, not out of the federal or provincial pie.”

166 Street Station Fraser Highway SkyTrain Surrey Langley

September 2020 artistic rendering of 166 Street Station on the Expo Line’s Surrey-Langley SkyTrain Extension. (TransLink)

But McCallum stuck to his guns, slowly converting other mayors to his cause and spooking the heck out of the NDP’s Surrey MLAs, who suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of the issue in the minds of local voters.

The Horgan government abruptly switched course in October’s snap election, hoping to appeal to Surrey voters with a new, larger, $1.5 billion funding promise for SkyTrain to Langley.

Trudeau also flip-flopped for the same reason last week, on the eve of his own snap election.

When Trudeau cut his government’s $1.3 billion cheque last week, it turned out that in fact the extra funding for the more expensive SkyTrain project did indeed come out of the federal and provincial pie and not McCallum’s own pocket as Horgan had once threatened.

There’s only one way to say it: Victory, McCallum.

The Surrey mayor raised his fist in triumph at the Trudeau event last week, shouting: “It’s a great great time, yes for Surrey!”

So ends the political back-and-forth of the Surrey SkyTrain project.

Now on to the actual construction.

Transportation Minister Rob Fleming told Daily Hive Urbanized that Trudeau’s commitment of $1.3 billion makes the full Surrey-Langley SkyTrain project viable and ready to proceed.

“The federal contribution means that it’s gonna get done that much more quickly,” said Fleming.

“That was really the partnership that we wanted to secure.

“Both the federal government, ourselves and TransLink recognize the huge opportunity that comes with this project. We know there’s going to be 300,000 to 400,000 people moving to the Fraser Valley between now and 2035, and to have that anchored with the first rail-based transportation investment in almost 30 years south of the Fraser is a tremendous planning tool for the City of Langley, the Township of Langley and Surrey.”

surrey langley skytrain route map stages

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

The new 16-km extension from the Expo Line will go from King George Station to 203 Street in Langley Centre, with eight new above-ground stations.

But not everything is settled quite yet.

The project doesn’t even have a business case, which doesn’t worry Fleming because he said one had previously been drafted for the first phase to Fleetwood.

“A lot of work has been done on planning the stations and the routes and the high level business case that was completed for the first phase is of course instructive for the whole project,” he said.

The new business case for a full route to Langley will be completed next year, said Fleming, and then construction will begin on the entire route at once, not in delayed phases.

“We want it to be a continuous construction project,” he said.

The only other missing piece is how TransLink will pay for its roughly $1.1 billion share of the new $3.95 billion project budget.

“They’ll have to figure it out but they won’t have to start paying into the project until like 2024 or 2025 so there’s a few years for TransLink to recover ridership and other revenue sources,” said Fleming.

“And, you know, those discussions about what the contributions will look like are ones that our government is having with TransLink right now.”

Meanwhile, Surrey has already begun pre-work on its own, widening Fraser Highway, relocating Hydro polls and clearing land.

The city is still charging out full-steam ahead on the project, just like its mayor. Politically, all the other politicians are still following in McCallum’s wake.

Rob ShawRob Shaw

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