Harper’s Surrey LRT pledge hinges on regional funding

$700 million federal election campaign promise only part of city’s rapid transit puzzle

Metro Vancouver commuters crowd downtown streets and buses. Unlocking senior government funding for the proposed Surrey light rail transit and Broadway subway projects will require more precise cost estimates than those currently available, a TransLink executive told the TransLink board of directors on September 25 | Rob Kruyt

The federal Conservative promise of $700 million from taxpayers to build a light rail system in Surrey is the latest vote-getting pledge from the major federal parties to open purse strings to fund TransLink expansion.

But a TransLink executive told the TransLink board of directors on September 25 that business cases with more precise cost estimates are required to unlock both federal and provincial funding for the proposed Surrey light rail transit (LRT) and Broadway subway projects.

Fred Cummings, TransLink vice-president of engineering and infrastructure management, said a third of funding from the B.C. government is “committed” and a third from the federal government is “anticipated.”

The third from Metro Vancouverites is the wild card, after voters rejected hiking the provincial sales tax to 7.5% from 7% in this year’s transit funding plebiscite.

“Because of the size of the investment, the ability to advance the rail projects is really contingent on determining a new regional source of funding,” Cummings said. “We can’t obviously fund them with our current revenue streams.”

The rejected Mayors’ Council plan estimated the Broadway subway would cost $1.98 billion and Surrey LRT $2.14 billion, but those estimates could balloon significantly depending on the results of engineering, planning and business case studies underway.

The next deadline for federal funding applications through the P3 Canada Fund is in March 2016. Confirmation would follow by fall 2016.

“Currently we’re at about a plus or minus 30% confidence level in the design,” Cummings said. “We have to move that to a plus or minus 15% confidence level. That’s the work that’s going on now.”

Earlier this year, TransLink hired Stantec (TSX:STN) for a $1.4 million conceptual design and cost-estimate study on the Broadway proposal.

Steer Davies Gleave and Hatch Mott MacDonald are leading the Surrey project for $1.56 million. They subcontracted Stantec, Via Architecture, Tony Steadman and the Stewart Group.

The Stewart Group is headed by Lecia Stewart, a veteran infrastructure consultant and lobbyist.

Oliver Lum, spokesman for Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, told BIV that Surrey paid Stewart $50,000 to help in applying for the P3 Canada Fund, $42,000 for a report touting the economic benefits of LRT and $324,000 for “referendum campaign advocacy.”

At the time, Stewart was also the registered B.C. lobbyist for Cubic Transportation Systems, the provider of the over-budget and late Compass smart card and fare gates system.

In Toronto, Stewart registered with city hall as a lobbyist for French train maker Alstom Transportation Inc. from March 11, 2014, to March 10, 2016, about the Finch and Sheppard LRT lines.

“We engaged the Stewart Group to help us put together an application for the federal government and at the same time we also engaged them to pick their brains on the strategies and how to move ahead,” said City of Surrey LRT manager Paul Lee.

“They were very successful in Edmonton securing federal money, and then when the campaign for the referendum started they also started other services.”

Lee said the contracts were sole-sourced.

Stewart headed the Millennium Line project under the BC NDP government until she was dismissed with $420,000 in severance pay after the BC Liberals won the 2001 election. She later became a Bombardier (TSX:BDRPF) vice-president. 

Stewart got a no-bid, $351,000 contract with City of Edmonton to consult on its LRT proposal. Also in 2013, TransLink hired her on an $80,000 no-bid contract for its regional transit plan.

She was both chief strategist and spokeswoman for the Rideau Transit Group, the SNC-Lavalin (TSX:SNC)-involved consortium picked by City of Ottawa to build the $2.1 billion Confederation Line in the capital.