Within reach: an update on the Surrey Langley SkyTrain extension

A look at how politics, budgets, and a global pandemic are impacting the project

Andrew Mercier, NDP MLA for the riding of Langley (Submitted).

When King George Station opened in 1994, it was the furthest east SkyTrain’s Expo Line travelled. Although it gave some residents access to downtown Vancouver, it barely scratched the surface, leaving most of the Fraser Valley without direct access to rapid transit.

As the Fraser Valley grew, many realized that having the SkyTrain terminate in Surrey wasn’t enough. Other infrastructure projects and lack of funding persisted. Now after a generation of waiting, a SkyTrain extension through Surrey and into Langley City is within reach.

Why Now? 

The Fraser Valley is experiencing a population boom, and that momentum is expected to continue. According to TransLink, “it is expected that by 2050, the City of Surrey, City of Langley, and Township of Langley will welcome 420,000 new residents and 147,000 new jobs.”

In order to remain competitive, citizens and politicians feel the need for reliable rapid transit, and that means its transportation infrastructure needs a massive overhaul.

Following Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum’s re-election in 2018, the proposed Surrey LRT project was scrapped in favour of a SkyTrain extension. In January, the Mayor’s Council endorsed the Surrey Langley SkyTrain extension, and TransLink referred their business case to senior governments for approval — currently under review. While not officially approved, newly re-elected premier John Horgan made it clear that the Surrey Langley SkyTrain was among his government’s top priorities.

In fact, the NDP government committed $9 billion towards infrastructure spending, including funds for the SkyTrain extension and creating 18,000 jobs a year.

“Investing in public transit and roads is a win-win-win,” said Horgan in October. “Our plan will get people moving faster and more affordably while we get through the pandemic and build an economic recovery for everyone.”

Mike Starchuk, the NDP MLA for Surrey Cloverdale, says the delay in development is the result of scrapping the Surrey LRT. Years of resources and planning were discarded when Mayor McCallum’s government took over, so the SkyTrain project had to start from scratch.

“We stopped planning to build a two-storey house, and we scrapped that and said, ‘Now we’re going to build an apartment building,’” he says.

The Breakdown 

Costing an estimated $3.1 billion, the Surrey Langley SkyTrain will extend from King George Station via the Expo Line, and run parallel to Fraser Highway through Fleetwood and Cloverdale-Clayton before terminating at Langley City. The project will span 16 kilometres of elevated track, featuring eight stations, three bus exchanges, additional park and ride spaces, plus an operations and maintenance centre.

According to TransLink’s website, the proposed extension is projected to serve 62,000 daily riders in the year 2035 and grow to 71,200 riders in 2050. The extension will provide the capacity to move 6,800 passengers per hour per direction — more than 10 times the capacity of bus service today – with the ability to add further capacity.

The new extension would see trains operate every six to eight minutes during peak periods, and a trip from Langley City to King George Station would take about 22 minutes. By 2035, it’s expected to save 900,000 hours of travel time annually.

Construction is expected to commence in 2022, with the line fully operational by 2025, however it remains unclear how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect this tentative plan.

About $1.6 billion in funding is currently available, with more subject to senior government approval.

The Support 

First launched in 1985, the transportation network operates on an independent track, offers breathtaking views of Metro Vancouver, and is fully automated.

A 2019 TransLink survey revealed that 85 per cent of respondents in Surrey and Langley supported the SkyTrain extension project, and throughout the rest of Metro Vancouver, 84 per cent of respondents also support the extension.

After scrapping the Surrey LRT, it was realized that the $1.6 billion previously set aside was not enough to get SkyTrain to Langley. With this funding, it could only go to Fleetwood.

In lieu of this missing funding, Tako van Popta, the Conservative MP for Langley-Aldergrove,  was in Ottawa last month advocating in Parliament to secure $550 million of federal funding for the Fleetwood to Langley component.

He says any infrastructure project requires funding from three sources: municipal, provincial, and federal governments. Currently, the project has three-way funding to Fleetwood. However, there is only support from municipalities, TransLink, and the provincial government for the extension to Langley City. van Popta says federal funding is the missing piece.

“To really get Langley actively engaged in the urban development around Metro Vancouver, I think that it requires SkyTrain,” he says. “The only way you can [grow] urban development at the intensity we’re doing here in Metro Vancouver is to build it around transportation hubs.”

Starchuk, van Popta, and Andrew Mercier, the NDP MLA for Langley, have always called the Fraser Valley home. But the Surrey and Langley they all grew up in has changed, and it’s growing fast.

“It’s not the same Langley that it was when I was growing up here as a kid,” says van Popta.

They say SkyTrain in the Fraser Valley is long overdue. Mercier says talk of SkyTrain to Langley dates back to the 1990s, and constituents he’s spoken to and Langley City Council supports the project.

“The public transit system in Surrey has not been addressed for 25 years,” says Starchuk. “When it came up Scott Road, and it came up into Surrey Centre, that’s where it stopped…if you take a look at the SkyTrain tracks themselves, and they’re lined up to go right down Fraser Highway. But funding was never there.”

“The advancement of SkyTrain is important for Langley, and it’s important for me too,” says Mercier.

Starchuk, van Popta, and Mercier all agree SkyTrain is the gateway to the future and will forever transform their cities.

“We need to connect ourselves so it’s not taking three to four hours a day to commute,” says Mercier. “What kind of community, and what kind of province, do we want to be?”

Surrey and Langley are experiencing rapid growth, and Mercier says current transit infrastructure is not sustainable.

Once SkyTrain to Langley is built, van Popta says high-density residential and commercial spaces will follow along the new transit corridor, as seen in prior rapid transit projects throughout Metro Vancouver, and will help address the housing crisis. He cautions that a challenge this monumental needs to be tackled in a “big and aggressive way.”

“If you’re flying to Vancouver on a clear and sunny day, you can see exactly where the SkyTrain track goes, from all the clusters of highrises that spring up in near proximity to SkyTrain stations,” says van Popta.

Starchuk says the extension will also fuel economic development by increasing access to employment opportunities. In an email toThe Runner, TransLink said it will also “improve regional accessibility and promote social and community cohesion by connecting Surrey Metro Centre, Fleetwood Town Centre, and Langley City Centre with rapid transit.”

TransLink also said the project will promote walking, and reduce 17,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually.

“The quicker that we get people out of their gas guzzlers and get them onto transit because it’s convenient, the better it is for the planet,” says Starchuk.

Because of logistics in securing funding, the extension will likely be broken down into phases, according to TransLink. However, Mercier and Starchuk say it’s a provincial capital project, and in addition to their share, they’ll secure funding from municipalities and the federal government. Starchuk adds he is confident the provincial NDP government will get SkyTrain built in one go.

“The provincial government made a promise, and we’ll continue with that promise that it won’t be done in stages, that when we build it out, it’ll be right from Surrey Centre all the way into Langley in one fell swoop,” says Starchuk.

The Opposition

However, favourability for the SkyTrain doesn’t extend to everyone in the Fraser Valley.

“SkyTrain as a technology is fine for the places that it’s in,” says Rick Green, president of the South Fraser Rail Society and former Township of Langley mayor. “But, quite frankly, it’s an outdated technology, and it’s an incredibly expensive technology.”

The South Fraser Rail Society plan calls for the reactivation of the Interurban, a 100km long rail line that runs from the Pattullo Bridge to Chilliwack. It runs through 16 municipalities and within 14 post-secondary institutions, including KPU. A hydrogen-fuelled train would travel from the Pattullo Bridge to Chilliwack in 90 minutes, catering to about 1.2 million residents.

The Interurban has been in use for 100 years and used by the Canadian Pacific Railway for light freight. Green says it’s free to use, but their project would cost about $1.3 billion, compared to the $3.1 million estimated for the Surrey Langley SkyTrain.

Green says the decision to extend SkyTrain was done in a “knee jerk fashion,” and from Surrey Centre to Langley the cost of building SkyTrain is over $200 million per kilometre. He adds that he believes the geological engineering and budgeting is flawed due to the amount of farmland the track needs to cut through. The cost of building SkyTrain through Surrey to Langley doesn’t cover the number of residents it would serve, he says.

“Their business plan is totally flawed,” says Green. “They have serious, serious financial problems.”

Green doesn’t view it as SkyTrain versus Interurban and believes both projects are independent, adding that of the two, Interurban is most viable. Regardless of whether SkyTrain gets built, Green wants to see their plan come to fruition too. But, the only way he says TransLink can provide their share of the funding is through additional taxes.

“Why are we spending…what they claim to be $3.2 billion? And I will bet my house that it’ll be $5 billion by the time it’s finished,” says Green.

Starchuk and Mercier haven’t encountered any opposition, but Starchuk says constituents feel once SkyTrain is built, rapid transit should expand to other areas of Surrey.

van Popta says constituency support for SkyTrain has also been positive, but not at the expense of the Highway 1 expansion to Abbotsford, adding that in time both projects need to be completed. He’s heard from a few constituents who worry SkyTrain will bring crime to Langley, but he is doubtful.

In response to the plan ushered by the South Fraser Community Rail Society, van Popta says, “It’s romantic, but I don’t think it’s realistic.”

On the Interurban alternative, TransLink said on their website that “communities connected by the Interurban have neither the population density nor transit demand that exists along Fraser Highway, King George Boulevard and 104 Avenue” and “estimated travel times are not competitive with rapid transit.”

They do add that Interurban will be considered for their Transport 2050 strategy.

“We would like to suggest that that deal is not a done deal yet,” says Green. “I would like to suggest that we can provide an alternative [to SkyTrain].”

Next Steps

While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world to a standstill, TransLink said project planning for the extension has continued. This includes environmental screening review and stakeholder engagement. However, the third round of public consultations was paused due to the provincial election.

TransLink added that they “will continue to work with the new provincial government on next steps to align project direction, and secure funding to construct the project to Langley City.”

In preparation, Fraser Highway between 140 St. to 148 St. is being widened. Concurrent construction will minimize impacts to residents, businesses, and the environment.

The pandemic is expected to last well into 2021, but van Popta, Mercier, and Starchuk say they will continue to advocate for the Surrey Langley SkyTrain going forward.

“We’re the gateway to the Pacific Rim, and…for the strength of Canada, Vancouver needs to keep on developing,” says van Popta. “It is still a priority for me because I see a light at the end of the tunnel of the pandemic, and things will get back to normal.”