By Matt Law
Transportation is a hot button issue in British Columbia, and for Canada’s fastest growing city, the debate is picking up speed.
Results from the 2011 national census show that Surrey’s population grew at a rate three times the national average, which means there are a lot of commuters hitting the streets.
Increased vehicle traffic, full busses and poor transit service are making many residents south of the Fraser River wonder if there is a better option.
The answer, says Peter Holt, a member of the Valley Transportation Advisory Committee (VALTAC), may lie in a system more than 100 years old and already in place.
Holt, who previously served as head of the Surrey Board of Trade and chaired the Lower Mainland Chambers’ Transportation Panel, believes that existing rail lines should be utilized to improve transportation in the entire south of Fraser region.
Holt and VALTAC have focused their advocacy efforts on connecting communities, from Surrey to Abbotsford and as far as Hope, through the redevelopment of a Light Rail Transit (LRT) system.
“For us it’s about connecting south of the Fraser communities as opposed to just increasing the volume flows on the hub and spoke that flows into Vancouver,” said Holt.
By creating a sustainable transportation network, said Holt, these communities will be able to enhance their economic development, combat urban sprawl and create more pleasant surroundings at transit nodes.
The original Interurban Rail system was built in 1910 and ran streetcars from downtown Vancouver right into the suburbs. Passenger services continued on sections of the rail line until the 1950s. As cars became more affordable, commuters opted for the convenience of their own vehicle rather than taking a train.
In 2012, this trend continues. According to the latest census data, of the 468,251 residents in Surrey 156,610 regularly commute by car while only 20,040 use public transit.
“If we continue to grow at the rate we’ve been growing, the residents are going to get very, very frustrated,” said Holt.
There are other options to an LRT system but Holt believes that developing the existing rail lines would be both cost effective and reduce congestion on the roads.
“Rapid rail is very expensive,” he said. “Skytrain is $120,000 per metre. Every five metres of rapid rail capital cost would be a bus. So, every kilometre is 200 busses.”
But adding more busses to the streets would not necessarily help the problem of congestion either.
“More busses on the road will actually choke back the flow that that road is capable of taking. And if you are going to grow the population like you did in Surrey in five years by 73,000 people, something has got to give,” said Holt.
VALTAC’s vision is to develop a rail line that commuters would be able to board near the Scott Road SkyTrain station. The route would pass through Nordel Crossing, Surrey’s industrial sector and on to Newton Centre. It would then continue through the Sullivan area to Cloverdale where it would pass the Kwantlen Polytechnic University campus before heading to Trinity Western University and further out the valley.
According to Holt, this would require only six kilometres of new rail line and would cost close to 25 per cent less than a rapid transit system such as SkyTrain.
“VALTAC’s position was although it wasn’t perfect in its route, it actually joined a lot of the communities together,” he said.
Despite the potential positives of bringing an LRT passenger rail line to the valley, the task has met many political road blocks in the past.
In 2007, when Holt sat on Surrey’s committee to discuss light rail with TransLink, the idea was given a flat tire.
“TransLink patently refused even to discuss the rail line,” said Holt.
While Holt admits he is not sure why TransLink was unwilling to discuss the idea of light rail, he does believe it is part of a larger political problem.
“Our mobility south of the Fraser, over 25 years, has been compromised by executive decisions out of the premier’s office, and this is NDP or BC Liberals, it doesn’t matter,” he said.
Holt states that because of a lack of political power by mayors south of the Fraser, the region’s transportation infrastructure has fallen terribly behind – but this may be changing.
Mayors from Surrey, White Rock Abbotsford, the Langleys and Delta met for the first time on April 5 as the South of Fraser Mayors’ Committee to discuss ways of continuing to improve the region. Light rail was one of the items on the table.
“That was the point of getting together and having some of those discussion because everyone supports at-grade rail which is very important south of the Fraser,” said Mayor Dianne Watts who supports the use of existing rail beds but admits some of the routes may not be viable.
This meeting was promising for Holt, who believes that collective action is the only way to improve transit in the region.
“If we can get the mayors to all act together and demand, and I mean demand, that this is what we want, then I think there is a potential that this could start to happen within 10 years,” he said.
About the Author: Matt Law is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver, B.C. He is currently finishing a degree in journalism and serving a second term as media editor at The Runner.
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