Every month, millions of people use the SkyTrain to move across the Metro Vancouver region.
People value being able to travel through multiple cities in order to reach their school or workplace, to visit family and friends, or to spend time exploring the many parks, venues, libraries, museums, and other attractions that the Lower Mainland has to offer.
For many, having near-constant access to these places is a huge part of what makes living in Metro Vancouver worthwhile, and without a reliable transit network, all of that would be much more difficult or time-consuming for people who don’t have access to vehicles.
In August of this year, 9.62 million people boarded the SkyTrain on either the Expo or Millenium lines, and a large portion of those boardings occurred south of the Fraser River in Surrey. For people who live in South Surrey or Langley, however, their transit access is still mostly limited to bus services. This means it takes more time for them to reach the SkyTrain stations in Surrey, and more time to travel to destinations in the Tri Cities, New Westminster, Burnaby, Richmond, or Vancouver.
A large portion of KPU students live in areas in South Surrey and Langley, and some even live further east in Aldergrove, Abbotsford, or Chilliwack. If they don’t have access to a motor vehicle, transit is their only option for travelling west, and the two-way commute from these eastern regions can take several hours per day — hours which could be spent studying, working, or just living life outside the confines of a packed bus.
TransLink, the corporation responsible for developing and operating transit in Metro Vancouver, is working hard to change all of that with the Surrey Langley SkyTrain Project.
The SLS Project refers to TransLink’s multiphase plan to add up to 16 km to the SkyTrain’s elevated railway, beginning at King George Station, travelling along the Fraser Highway, and ending at 203 Street at Langley City Centre. The SLS project also includes the construction of eight new stations and three new bus exchanges along the route. Like most projects of this magnitude, the SLS will be built in stages. The first one will extend the Expo line seven kilometres down Fraser Highway to 166 Street in Fleetwood, and the second will complete the rest of the line to Langley City Centre.
“One of the big benefits of the SkyTrain extension is the additional accessibility that it brings to the transit system. As an example, today, from Fleetwood, you can get to about 300,000 jobs or places of study in an hour by transit,” says Jeff Busby, Director of the Surrey Langley Skytrain Project.
“When we build the SkyTrain extension, that jumps from 300,000 to 800,000. So what that means is that [the SkyTrain Extension] allows people to have broader access to places to live and to work opportunities and it makes transit much more competitive when compared with driving.”
Currently, TransLink is working on eight different rail projects of various types and sizes across the region, including expansions to the Canada Line, Millenium Line, and Expo Line train fleets. As part of this, the organization plans to extend the Millenium line down Broadway in Vancouver and to upgrade the Burrard and Joyce-Collingwood Stations.
“One of the unique aspects of this project is that so many other projects are happening simultaneously, and that’s one of the things we’re really working through,” says Busby.
“In my mind, it’s a really good challenge to have. I think the experience that’s gained from that will allow us to really improve the pace with which we can deliver these significant projects going forward.”
TransLink estimates that the first phase will take a few years, with construction beginning in 2022. The line out to Fleetwood should be completed and in service by late 2025.
“If our construction schedule goes according to plan, we will be opening the Surrey SkyTrain extension to Fleetwood at the same time as the Broadway extension to Arbutus, and at a very similar time as a big renewal of our Expo and Millennium line fleet,” says Busby.
I’m the time it will take to get to that point, TransLink plans to focus on a few big-picture things which are important to the future of the project: The people and communities who will be affected by it, environmental concerns over the land it will be built on, and the money that all of this is going to cost.
Up until the Surrey municipal election in October 2018, TransLink was planning to build a Light Rail Transit line through corridors between Guildford, Surrey Central, and Newton. Those plans changed after Mayor Doug McCallum was elected.
One of McCallum’s campaign promises was to stop the LRT development and push for a SkyTrain extension instead, which is exactly what he did. In December 2018, the Mayor’s Council voted to let TransLink start planning for the SkyTrain extension, and in July of this year, the council approved the plan.
TransLink had already been conducting a public engagement and consultation process since the spring, asking people for their opinions on different aspects of the SLS project. Its research revealed that people wanted increased transportation options which were comfortable, safe, and predictable, and that people thought it was important that TransLink use public money for the project responsibly.
“At the end of the day, TransLink is very aware that we are delivering the project on behalf of the region, so we want broad support,” says Busby.
“An important part of the work that we do is to make sure that people are aware of what projects we’re working on, and that they have opportunities to shape those projects and ensure that they fit well into their communities.”
TransLink’s market research reports that 77 per cent of Surrey and Langley residents surveyed supported the proposal to extend the SkyTrain line. That same report also says that people who live closer to the proposed route of the extension — referred to as the corridor — are more likely to have heard of the proposal and be in support of it.
These demographics likely overlap with KPU student demographics. According to KPU’s 2016 Student Housing Needs Survey, 49 per cent of surveyed domestic KPU students and 61 per cent of international students live in Surrey or White Rock. An additional 12 per cent of surveyed domestic students and three per cent of international students live in Langley.
Thirty-seven per cent of domestic students surveyed said they use transit to commute, a statistic which jumps to 65 per cent for surveyed international students. Also, 14 per cent of domestic students surveyed reported that their commute lasted for a duration longer than one hour, compared to 13 per cent of surveyed international students who gave the same response.
TransLink estimates that, once the SLS project is complete, it would take 22 minutes to travel from Langley City Centre to King George Station by SkyTrain.
“University students are high transit users to begin with, and the fact that KPU has campuses across the region means that they’re one of our key markets for transit,” says Busby.
Students were invited to attend and provide feedback at a TransLink Open House event at KPU on Nov. 14. Many provided input on things they considered important features of designing transit stations such as proper shelter and lighting at bus stops, park-and-ride spaces, maps and signage, and sidewalks that connect to other destinations.
Currently, Translink is in the second phase of its public engagement process, the results of which will be made available next year.
The third phase will begin in early 2020, when TransLink plans to ask members of the public for their opinion on issues like how to minimize the impacts that the elevated rail construction will have on local residents and businesses and how to move forward with creating public art installations.
Incorporating community feedback is a crucial aspect of making sure that a project like the SLS can properly serve the needs of the people who will make use of it, but Busby says that TransLink is also taking into account the possible effects that the project could have on the local environment.
There are a number of potentially negative environmental impacts that can result from construction projects the size of the SLS. The transit service itself can also negatively affect the environment around it once it’s up and running, so planning for those possibilities is an important step in making sure that any harmful impacts are minimized.
To that end, TransLink is currently in the process of conducting an Environmental Screening Review, which combines studies by technical experts with feedback from government bodies, First Nations, local communities, and the public at large. The point of this review is to come up with a plan that will prevent as many negative environmental impacts as possible, both for wildlife and for people in the area.
The ESR is taking a look at factors like how the project’s construction and operation could impact local freshwater fisheries, wildlife and vegetation, noise pollution, and air quality. It’s also examining the possible effects on important historical or archaeological sites, how traffic flow and access to emergency services might be disrupted, and the potential problem of digging up hazardous waste or materials during the construction process.
The planned route also runs through Green Timbers Urban Forest, an ecologically sensitive area between 140 Street and 148 Street. Right now, TransLink is deciding exactly where to place the station at 140 Street in order to avoid damaging or impacting trees in the area.
The SLS will cross the Serpentine River Valley between Fleetwood and Clayton, which is designated Agricultural Reserve Land.
“That Serpentine River Valley is in the Agricultural Land Reserve, so we worked very closely with the City of Surrey and the Agricultural Land Commission to design the line to stay within the road allowance for Fraser Highway, and we believe that we’ve taken care of any impacts to the agriculture and kept those to an absolute minimum,” says Busby.
“We think we’ve done a pretty decent job of identifying what might be concerns, but we’ll need to see the results of that and see whether we need to add any more studies.”
The ESR is still developing, but its findings will help shape how the SLS is built and run.
“Next year, those results will be available, and those will inform the requirements that we will impose on the contractor who will finish the final design and construction of the project,” says Busby.
A December 2018 presentation to the Mayor’s Council carried a motion which addressed “the City of Surrey request to change the technology and timing of the Fraser Highway project from LRT to SkyTrain, and draw only on the available funding currently allocated for South of Fraser rapid transit in the Phase Two Plan.”
That available funding amounts to the $1.63 billion that was previously going to be used for the LRT.
TransLink estimates that building a SkyTrain extension from King George Station to Langley Centre will cost about $3.12 billion. Even though the organization has already secured the $1.63 billion, the remaining money needs to be provided and accounted for before the SLS can continue past Fleetwood.
“We need about $1.5 billion more to complete the project to Langley, and our intention is to complete the project to Langley,” says Busby.
“To do that, all three levels of government — the federal and provincial governments and the mayors who control local revenues — need to agree on the sources of funds.”
To help assure the different levels of government that the additional money is needed and will be used appropriately, TransLink is preparing a business case report that will provide them with the financial information needed to make a decision about funding the project.
This report is slated to be ready in early 2020. TransLink says that it anticipates the approval of an investment plan some time in the spring.
“It’s a really important step in getting senior government to confirm their funding for the project,” says Busby.
“Those are active discussions, and the mayors are lobbying now. Typically, they start with the federal government, and then other governments match [the funding], and that’s how we’ve made the progress that we’ve made over the last three or four years.”
For more information about the SLS project’s development, students can go to surreylangleyskytrain.ca.