COLUMN: Trained to go it alone

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The City of Surrey is asking the federal government for $1.8 billion under a federal infrastructure program.

It wants the money to build three at-grade light rail systems (LRT), independent of TransLink. It has come to the conclusion that TransLink’s funding woes, and an apparent bias toward SkyTrain, will prevent South Fraser residents from getting rapid transit in a timely fashion.

This initiative is a very important step forward. It would transform Surrey from a city that is, of necessity, auto-dependent to one where many local trips could easily be made by transit.

Studies consistently show that most Surrey residents travel within the city or to a neighbouring city, for shopping, work, school or recreation. There are relatively few trips between Surrey and downtown Vancouver. Yet the transit system is centred on most travellers getting downtown.

Surrey would like to build three LRT systems – along Fraser Highway, from the current King George SkyTrain station into Langley; along 104 Avenue from City Centre to Guildford; and along King George Boulevard, eventually as far as South Surrey. This would be a revolutionary advance, if it ever comes about.

There are a significant number of opponents of LRT, and they have some valid points. One is that SkyTrain is separated from traffic and thus can move faster. They are correct.

However, an at-grade LRT system can still move people quite quickly. There are such systems in Edmonton, Calgary and Seattle.

I have ridden the entire length of the Edmonton system, which goes from the northeast corner of the city to a point in the far south. It uses some existing infrastructure, such as rail grades, and also tunnels under the downtown area.

Perhaps even more relevant to what Surrey is proposing is the Sound Transit Link system in Seattle. It goes from downtown Seattle to the Sea-Tac Airport, and a considerable portion of its route is at grade.

The final stretch into the airport is separated from traffic, as is SkyTrain, but about half the route is at grade. Overall time between the two end points is reasonable, yet it serves a fair number of stations. It accommodates cyclists and bikes. It costs $2.75 per trip.

What is particularly relevant to the Surrey proposal is that it makes good time along a busy street, using a separated right-of-way in the middle of the street, and traffic lights that are co-ordinated so the train can keep moving.

LRT lines along the three Surrey roads could travel in the middle of the street, and if traffic lights and crossing arms are co-ordinated, a trip between SkyTrain and Langley, or City Centre and South Surrey, would likely take 20 to 25 minutes.

This might be slightly slower than SkyTrain, but any such line is decades away. While Surrey SkyTrain extensions have been promised, most notably by former premier Gordon Campbell near the end of his years in power, there was no funding commitment. With the cost of building SkyTrain and pressure on TransLink to build rapid transit to UBC before doing anything in Surrey,  any such line is a pipe dream.

LRT lines that could be up and running within a decade would make Surrey much more livable, and given Surrey’s growth projections, they would be a good use of federal infrastructure dollars.

Frank Bucholtz is the editor of The Langley Times. He writes weekly for The Leader.

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