Major construction on Surrey-Langley SkyTrain expected to begin in 2024

Sep 24 2021, 8:02 pm

In about three years, major construction is expected to be underway on the entire 16-km-long SkyTrain Expo Line Surrey-Langley Extension, now timed for a completion and opening in 2028.

Although this date is seven years away, this is deemed as the best-case scenario, accounting for the COVID-19 impact and financial challenges to TransLink, and the intent to build the extension in a single phase from King George Station in Surrey City Centre to 203 Street in Langley.

In an interview with Daily Hive Urbanized on Thursday, BC Transportation and Infrastructure minister Rob Fleming said the BC NDP has fulfilled its two-pronged October 2020 election campaign promise of expediting the entire extension in one phase, and pursuing the federal government for a significant financial contribution.

“We’re looking at opportunities to fast track every step of the way, but the main thing is to stabilize the project because COVID-19 financially challenged the delivery model that had been anticipated,” said Fleming.

“We fulfilled both commitments made under a year ago, and that changed the story on a project that had uncertainty over it because of COVID-19 to one that is going to proceed as quickly as possible.”

By the end of this year, as a key step towards achieving that election promise, the provincial government will complete the process of taking over the project’s jurisdiction — its planning and execution — from TransLink.

Fleming says there is currently “tremendous work” being done on the project, especially on a new business case accounting for the entire extension. A completed business case is required to take the planning process to the next big milestone, but he says TransLink’s previously completed work on a business case only accounted for the first seven km to 166 Street in Fleetwood.

At the moment, he says, there is no timeline for when the business case will be approved, which also requires collaboration with the federal government for their approval given their involvement as a result of their recently announced funding commitment.

But Fleming expects the bidding process for the main construction contractor to begin no later than the fourth quarter or 2022 or the first quarter of 2023. Major construction activities would start a year later in 2024, shortly after the awarding of the contract to the successful proponent.

surrey langley skytrain route map stages

Map of the two stages of the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain Extension. The project will now be built in one stage. (TransLink)

Based on a completion by 2028, the full cost of the project now stands at $3.95 billion. By building the extension as one project without any interruption in construction, Fleming says the resulting efficiencies and economies of scale lead to construction cost savings of 14% or roughly $500 million — compared to the alternative of building the project in two stages, with the second nine-km-long stage from Fleetwood to Langley Centre completed by 2030.

During Thursday’s Mayors’ Council meeting, TransLink CEO Kevin Quinn made comments echoing this strategy, stating the provincial government made the determination that it would be more practical to build it all in one phase — less costly than two phases.

But there was a time, as early as 2019 and as recently as early 2020, when TransLink believed the full extension reaching Langley Centre would be possible by 2025, based on previous meeting reports and public comments by TransLink leadership and their discussions with Daily Hive Urbanized.

A July 2019 update by TransLink staff to the Mayors’ Council indicated an extension halfway to Fleetwood or all the way Langley Centre could be accomplished for $3.1 billion, based on a business case approval and additional funding by June 2020, which did not happen due to the pandemic. Based on TransLink’s previous timeline, procurement for a contractor would begin immediately afterwards, with the contract awarded by late 2021, major construction starting in the second quarter of 2022, and regular service beginning in late 2025.

This position was again clearly reiterated by TransLink leadership in October 2019: “If we can get the full funding and do this as a continuous project, it will be less expensive than doing it as two completely separate projects over the years, and you can get to Langley in the same period of time by 2025.”

If the segment of the extension from Fleetwood to Langley Centre could not be squeezed into phase two of the Mayors’ Council’s 10-year transportation expansion strategy, it would have to be pursued down the line under phase three of the regional strategy.

Fleming says the provincial government’s discussions with TransLink on the extension in 2019 dealt largely with the extent of the project scope.

During a Mayors’ Council meeting in May 2020, it was stated by TransLink staff that the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain Extension had been the organization’s primary impetus until the onset of the pandemic, and that the previously established timeline for going to procurement for a contractor in 2020 was no longer possible.

One of the outstanding questions at the time was whether the extension to at least Fleetwood could be pursued outside the investment plan, which is legislatively required for TransLink for any projects over $50 million. With the pandemic’s challenging effects on TransLink, presenting an investment plan update on the Mayors’ Council’s 10-year strategy — accounting for the cancelled Surrey Newton-Guildford LRT in favour of SkyTrain on another corridor — by July 2020 was no longer feasible.

It was also stated that the provincial government and TransLink were examining options to increase the cost-sharing formula (generally 40% federal, 40% provincial, and 20% local) for major projects as a component of a senior government relief package. This would reduce the region’s capital share of costs and free up TransLink’s fiscal resources for narrowing the gap between fare revenues and operating costs. To achieve this, it requires an update of the business case before Treasury Board approvals with the provincial and federal governments.

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)

By September 2020, six months into the pandemic, TransLink unveiled its proposed conceptual designs for the four stations along the first stage reaching Fleetwood, and indicated they were not prepared to pursue the second stage to Langley Centre at the same time due to a lack of funding.

But on the backdrop of all of this is what the provincial government had agreed to in 2018, when it approved the original investment plan for the second phase of the Mayors’ Council’s 10-year strategy that included the Millennium Line Broadway Extension and the Surrey Newton-Guildford LRT.

The 2018 agreement also included the provincial government taking over project execution, ownership, and the full cost of the $1.4-billion Pattullo Bridge replacement, in an effort to reduce TransLink’s fiscal pressures and allow it to focus on public transit expansion projects.

“Originally the regional investment transportation plan called for us to be the lead on Broadway and as a provincial asset, and TransLink for Fleetwood and eventually Langley as their asset,” said Fleming.

“I don’t think we intended to be the lead agencies to develop Surrey-Langley because we committed to Broadway Subway, but here we are leading both projects.”

This transit project-based jurisdictional ownership is reflected by the funding levels the federal and provincial governments and TransLink agreed to in 2018.

For the province-led $2.8-billion Millennium Line Broadway Extension, the provincial government is covering the lions’ share with $1.82 billion, followed by the federal government with $888 million and the City of Vancouver with $100 million in-kind through contributing land for the stations. Technically, the subway does not have a direct TransLink contribution.

For the TransLink-led $1.65-billion Surrey-Newton Guildford LRT, the breakdown was $1.12 billion from TransLink, and $484 million from the federal government. After the Mayors’ Council aligned with the City of Surrey’s late 2018 decision to cancel LRT in favour of the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain extension, an effort began to seek permission to formally transfer the LRT’s funding to fully cover the extension to at least Fleetwood. The provincial government did not have a financial contribution towards the LRT, now SkyTrain, given its significant contribution to the subway in Vancouver.

“The current transportation investment plan that the Mayors’ Council is developing was originally due in 2020, but because of COVID-19 we’re giving them an extension,” said Fleming.

“We expect to have the updated investment plan in Spring 2022, and one of the things that’ll have to be done in the new iteration of the 10-year plan that the region produces is an update because the current plan still has LRT.”

To help build up ridership and use the new transportation infrastructure towards accomplishing housing and economic development goals, both Langley City and Surrey are engaged in processes to update their community plans to account for SkyTrain’s eventual arrival. Surrey’s proposed plans for the area that surrounds the three stations in Fleetwood would add over 100,000 residents over 30 years.

For its part, shortly after the July 2021 federal funding announcement, the City of Surrey began site preparation works along the extension’s route, including the widening of Fraser Highway through Green Timbers Urban Forest.

The provincial government is leading and financing at least five major transportation infrastructure projects in Metro Vancouver over 10 years, and all projects will see their construction timelines overlapping in the middle of this decade.

Along with the Expo Line Surrey-Langley Extension and the Millennium Line Broadway Extension (2021 to 2024), the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure is also building the new eight-lane replacement George Massey Tunnel (2026 to 2030), new replacement Pattullo Bridge (2021 to 2024), and the Highway 1 widening from Langley to Abbotsford (2022 to 2025).

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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