Public puts transportation issue on the election map

Mayoral candidates back LRT as the way to meet needs of the fast-growing city 

Cloverdale used to be the place to be in Surrey.

With a new municipal hall, bustling business development and a transit station that serviced three separate railway lines, the town’s location at a major transportation crossroads made it one of the jewels of the Fraser Valley. Decades later, with fairgrounds, a museum and a quaint downtown core, it remained a vibrant community steeped in history, close to modern transportation corridors.

Then the Expo Line opened in 1994, connecting SkyTrain users to north Surrey, or Whalley.

Almost 20 years later, Cloverdale is fast becoming disconnected from Surrey, as the new downtown core – renamed City Centre – draws away all the development money for multiple planned highrises and business developments.

Paul Orazietti, executive director of the Cloverdale Business Improvement Association, said Cloverdale has been suffering ever since the Expo Line went in.

“We definitely need to have more linkage so that people can travel to [Cloverdale],” Orazietti said. “There are a number of public facilities that I believe warrant the attention. It’s also affecting our ability to densify in the downtown area because in many respects we can’t get any relaxation for parking if there isn’t increased transit.”

“Our greatest problem is connectivity between the town centres of Surrey,” he continued. “And also north-south movements. Basically right now there is a definite shortage of regular transportation. We unfortunately are also being marginalized by the retail hub that occurs in the Langley area.”

While Cloverdale remains surrounded by transportation infrastructure, the community is largely a corridor for drivers travelling between other business hubs. The town’s business improvement area itself is located next to Highway 10 and Pacific Highway 15, which service commuters to and from Vancouver, the U.S. border or Langley and beyond.

But it’s not just Orazietti who would like to see transportation upgrades that directly service his area. A recent Insights West poll ranked transportation the second most important issue to voters in this November’s upcoming municipal election. The three mayoral front-runners have all spoken in favour of establishing a light rail transit (LRT) system. For Barinder Rasode, a current city councillor who broke from outgoing Mayor Dianne Watts’ slate earlier this year, it’s the option that best fits with her vision for Surrey.

“If the ultimate goal is to get people out of your community faster, then it might be SkyTrain. But if the goal is around community building, and getting people to shop locally and to support local business, at-grade rail that actually connects town centres is the way to go.”

Back when Doug McCallum was the chair of TransLink – a position he held during his final three years of his three-term stint as mayor of Surrey – he was already on the LRT bandwagon and also looking to upgrade the community’s bus system. Like Rasode and many others in the community, he’s against a simple SkyTrain line expansion beyond King George, Surrey’s last stop, which services only the downtown core.

“Rapid transit won’t work because you go through huge agricultural land with no ridership,” he said.

Mayoral candidate Linda Hepner is also an LRT champion, and she has an ambitious goal if elected – construction completion in four years.

“We’ve paid our full share. It’s our turn, and we intend on making sure that happens,” added Hepner, who was Surrey’s manager of economic development before serving nine years as a city councillor.

Up until 2005, according to a 2011 Downtown Surrey Business Improvement Association (BIA) report, Surrey’s transit services were 76% less than those of Vancouver and Richmond. Hours and number of buses increased by close to 70% between then and 2009, growth that had the city on track to match average service levels of Metro Vancouver by 2021. That growth, however, has stagnated.

Next spring Metro Vancouver residents will finally have their say when it comes to transportation in the Lower Mainland with the Mayors’ Council investment plan referendum. If residents agree to a number of upgrades, Surrey will be first in line to receive the council’s proposed $2.1 billion rapid transit project, which would run along 104 Avenue and down King George Highway, connecting Surrey City Centre with Guildford and Newton.

Economist Joshua Gottlieb, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver School of Economics and a faculty research fellow in the National Bureau of Economic Research, says effective transit projects can increase a city’s population and are good for the local economy. However, proximity is key, and this could mean some communities in Surrey might get left out, once again.

“You would expect that neighbourhoods directly at a transit stop would grow faster than others.”

David Hendrickson, the professional planner who wrote the Downtown Surrey BIA’s report Improving Public Transportation Infrastructure in Surrey, said the city’s next mayor needs to tackle transportation issues once and for all. 

“We expect our politicians to lead. Let’s hope we have provincial and local representation in place to make the best decisions for Surrey, not only in the present but that will positively impact the city over the next 40 plus years.”

– With files from Patrick Blennerhassett