Climate Change
September 11, 2018

Pachal On Light Rail South of the Fraser

Nathan Pachal is a councilor in Langley City, and a friend of Price Tags.  HERE, he discusses the business case (105-page PDF) just released by TransLink on the Surrey-Newton-Guilford light rail project.  This SNG-LRT is Phase One, with Fraser Highway to Langley to follow as Phase Two.

Transportation nerd quiz:  what percentage of trips that originate South of the Fraser end there? Write down your answer, then read on. Prepare to be astonished.

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There was much anticipation before the federal budget was unlocked yesterday. Many of us were particularly interested in how much money would go towards transit investments in our region and whether the 33.3% x 3 percentage split for transportation infrastructure amongst federal, provincial, and municipal governments would be adjusted.
At first I was underwhelmed by the initial commitment of $370M for transit projects in Metro Vancouver. It doesn’t seem like much for the next 3 years. I have been assured by those in the know it’s a great start for the planning and design of projects in The Mayors’ Plan (pedestrian and bicycle improvements, subway and LRT, for instance) with more funding to come after that. That depends on re-election, of course.
The federal government also announced it will cover up to 50% of transit project construction costs. It seems to me, assuming the provincial portion remains at 33% and the max of 50% doesn’t depend on the provincial portion changing*, 100%-50-33=17% for municipalities – a long overdue improvement in the funding structure.
My federal budget scoop on Monday about The Mayors’ Plan, directing our regional requests for federal funds, continues to be good scoop. The Mayors’ Council put out a PDF statement on the federal budget yesterday. The federal Infrastructure and Communities Minister Sohi meets our Mayors’ Council tomorrow. My source tells me we will get more details after that meeting. Stay tuned.

*The BC provincial election is May 9, 2017: contact BC political parties now urging them to put sustainable transportation in their platforms.

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Remember the under-appreciated miracle that was The Mayors’ Plan?
That plan that almost all of the Mayors, 1 Chief, and 1 Director of Metro Vancouver agreed upon? Most voters had no idea what a huge accomplishment it was for 21 municipalities, 1 Treaty First Nation, and Electoral Area A to agree on the transportation infrastructure we needed as a region for the next 10 years – and in what order – just in time for our first transportation plebiscite.
The bad news is, those projects have been delayed ever since. The good news is, that plan is still useful. I’ve heard from a reliable source that The Mayors’ Plan continues to represent Metro Vancouver’s transportation needs to the federal government in recent budget preparations and negotiations. This includes a Broadway subway, LRT south of the Fraser, and 2700 kms of bikeways. My guess is that 11 new rapid bus routes will be the fastest to implement.
Further to Ken’s post earlier today Federal Budget — the Wish List in anticipation of tomorrow’s announcement, here’s another interesting bit from Toronto Mayor John Tory’s op-ed piece:

Every day, more than 2.7 million trips are taken on Toronto’s transit system. In Montreal, more than 2.2 million are taken on the Metro on an average day, while the Vancouver system sees more than 1.1 million.

[…] Taken together, their daily ridership numbers are higher than the combined populations of eight Canadian provinces and territories.

What’s not in The Mayors’ Plan? A 10 lane bridge to a fertile land that might soon be literally and figuratively below sea level. Let’s hope the federal budget focusses on sustainable transportation.
Stay tuned for more on this tomorrow.

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Many PT readers will by now have seen some of these snazzy renderings of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed light rail along 17 miles (27.3 kms) of the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront.




The purpose of this roughly $2B line is laudable: provide transportation access along one of the city’s fastest-growing development areas. Like many cities, NYC is no longer strictly a ‘spoke and wheel’ entity, with commuters rushing into Manhattan and then back out again. More people now live and work across and between the boroughs. And aside from a single local bus line, there is no transit along the East River’s east shore.
However, there’s a catch. It will be a streetcar, not a fully-dedicated light rail. Traveling with vehicle traffic, it will only average 12mph (19 km/hr) and take about 1 hour 15 minutes to travel from Astoria, Queens to Red Hook, Brooklyn. This trip will test patience. Riding it will make you swear you could lie down in the street and grow that distance quicker. I’m curious to see how long NY’ers will be enamored with this proposal as its details become more commonly known.
Just ask the folks in Edmonton, where the transit system recently opened up the much-delayed and problematic Metro Line light rail line from downtown to the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT). Untangling the new extension’s signalling problems is the stuff of masters’ theses, and Edmontonions were annoyed about the delays in its opening. But when they realized that the line would cause real, actual traffic delays, the poutine hit the fan.



Self-described transit supporter and Edmonton National Post reporter Tristin Hopper called the new line ““the equivalent of a candy company releasing a new chocolate bar called ‘Herpes Al-Qaeda’.” That’s both funny and harsh, and I look forward to reading his column when he realizes the the planned Valley Line (western extension) towards the Edmonton Mall will run as a fully-integrated streetcar with no dedicated right of way along some of the city’s busiest arterial roads.


Back our way, Surrey’s light rail will not have these problems. Both lines will function more like Edmonton’s older north-south network does now: mostly along their own rights-of-way but with signalized priority across intersecting streets.
So, streetcars are cheaper and provide far fewer benefits than dedicated light rail, yet more than buses. Are they worth it? Do you support such a system around False Creek or Olympic Village? Along 3rd Street and Marine Drive on the North Shore? A return to the 1940 network?


What about streetcars in the old Lower Mainland?

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Every rail-rapid transit proposals in Metro Vancouver started off as (mostly) at-grade light rail.

If you’ve ever ridden the MAX light rail system in Portland, I’m sure this is what the original rapid transit planners had in mind.
We ended up with SkyTrain because essentially the federal government wrote a big fat cheque to help support high-tech jobs in Ontario. Urban Transportation Development Corporation, the creators of SkyTrain, was an Ontario crown corporation. Since that original decision to build SkyTrain, the provincial government has never looked back.

The Millennium Line was originally planned to be light rail until the provincial government “undertook a comparison of light rail (LRT) and SkyTrain technologies.” In 1998, the provincial government proceeded to unilaterally decide that SkyTrain was the solution.

The same thing happened with the Evergreen Line. TransLink was originally going to build light rail, but the province released a completely unbiased business case which proved that SkyTrain was the way to go. The province unilaterally took over the management of the Evergreen Line project, and paid the extra cost of converting from light rail to SkyTrain.
The original vision for getting rail rapid transit to Richmond put both light rail and SkyTrain on the table. Because the Canada Line was a P3, a fully-automated SkyTrain-like system was built instead of the real McCoy, but still no light rail. So, what does this have to do with the title of this post?
The City of Surrey is committed to supporting the construction of light rail along King George Boulevard and Fraser Highway. Surrey’s Mayor Linda Hepner has even promised light rail by 2018 regardless of the failed transit referendum.

While some urbanists and transit geeks will debate the benefits of various transit technologies until they are blue in the face, in Metro Vancouver, it’s really just wasting energy.
Given the history of rail-rapid transit in Metro Vancouver, it is likely that Surrey Light Rail will become SkyTrain along Fraser Highway. In a recent interview, Peter Fassbender hinted at SkyTrain. There is no doubt in my mind that the province is working on a business case for SkyTrain along Fraser Highway right now.
I don’t know why both the NDP and BC Liberals are in love with SkyTrain, but the fact is that rail-rapid transit in Metro Vancouver equals SkyTrain.
I used to spend a lot of effort plugging the benefits of building light rail over SkyTrain, but I’ve come to learn that it is more important to promote the value of funding frequent, fast transit service.

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From Business in Vancouver:

“We will certainly respect Surrey’s decision about the kind of technology it wants,” Ken Hardie, one of the city’s new crop of successful Liberal candidates – and a former TransLink spokesman – said when asked about the federal government’s role in the project. “That hasn’t always been the case in the past; there have been times where federal governments have prescribed technology to be used. Surrey has its business case locked down for LRT as opposed to SkyTrain technology, and that’s what the Liberal government will definitely respect.”


Next questions:

What if the Province insists that their contribution is dependent on the use of SkyTrain technology or similar?

Does Surrey and/or region have to come to the table with a one-third contribution?

If regional, does there have to be another referendum?

Might the Feds even insist that there not be another referendum?

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Here’s the head from today’s Sun:


Here’s the actual wording:

“Surrey is well placed to secure B.C.’s first funding commitment under the Liberal plan.”

And in that subtle wording – “well placed” –  is more evidence of the damage being done by the referendum.

The Conservatives also want to pledge billions to Surrey for light rail.  The Province too – only key people in Victoria would prefer, it is said, a SkyTrain extension down the Fraser Highway.  But none of them can actually commit the money until Surrey can come to the table with one-third of local funding.

But guess what?  Surrey can’t.

Oh, it’s trying.  I hear rumours of casinos, value capture, whatever might be needed to fulfil a unilateral election promise. So far, it appears that the numbers don’t add up.

Normally, the one-third would be a commitment of regional dollars from TransLink.  But not now, at least not by cutting a huge hole in its budget which accommodates only the current level of service and, because of the referendum, has no source of money to spend on capital expansion at that scale, without penalizing everyone else in the region.

Of course, if Surrey wanted another big bridge or widened highway, no problem.  The Province would possibly cover all the capital. But transit?  If the Province covered both its and the municipality’s capital costs, it would be using dollars from taxpayers throughout B.C.  And the Premier would have to explain to the citizens of West Kelowna why they should help pay for Metro transit after Metro citizens voted not to.

Let’s see what Peter Fassbender comes up with.  No matter who gets elected to Ottawa, there are big bucks looking for a place and a way to land. With, so far, no obvious way to do so.

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Young Professionals in Transportation  Vancouver Chapter has invited Lon LaClaire and Paul Lee, Transportation Managers at the City of Vancouver and City of Surrey, to engage in a dialogue about the importance of rapid transit in the region and the different and similar needs facing Metro Vancouver’s two largest cities.

Moderated by Gordon Price, Director of the City Program at SFU, this event will give you the opportunity to hear from two leading professionals in the transportation field and to participate in a discussion with Lon, Paul, and other transportation professionals in the region.

Anyone from the public can purchase tickets or join YPT (they have no definition of young).


January 29

7 pm

Room 1600, SFU Harbour Centre – 515 West Hastings

Register here.

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One of PT’s most thoughtful commenters, YVRlutyens, wrote this response to “Cat, Meet Pigeons: Was Portland Light-rail worth it?”  It deserves a more prominent placement:


Save for Calgary, the North American LRT experiment has been something of a flop, and many people now see that. LRT (Light Rail Transit) just don’t add much more than buses besides cost, and when you try to build more of an exclusive right of way, you pay just about as much as a Metro with markedly inferior service. (In Toronto they seem to manage to pay even more than a metro with very markedly inferior service, but that’s what you get when the whole transit establishment becomes beholden to a failed idea.)

Part of the LRT movement was based on the perfectly laudable desire to increase capacity on overcrowded bus lines. But that goal seems to have obscured the other important goals of increasing speed and frequency. So American transit agencies spent a bunch of money building LRT but in doing so didn’t actually increase the service that much. The predictable result is that bus riders switched to the LRT lines, but the whole system didn’t add many new riders nor did it become more relevant to the city as a whole. (And with articulated buses and double articulated buses, the capacity of bus lines is less of a constraint.)

The very much disingenuous support of LRT on Broadway uses the same type of arguments: the 99 has this many riders which can be accommodated by the capacity of LRT, ergo there is no need for a metro. Too true. But with a metro you would add a tremendous amount of service – speed and frequency – that didn’t exist before. With LRT you’re still spending $1b+ without actually adding that much at all.

The Condon argument was worst of all. It was essentially replacing all the trolley routes with streetcars for the price of the Broadway Line. But this plan added no transit service at all. It was spending two billion on next to nothing. But it did let them create maps full of red lines that made it all look good compared to the short red red line denoting the Broadway Line. That a bunch of grad students at UBC were taken in with this plan reflected poorly on grad studies at UBC. I was a fan of LRT in 2nd year undergrad. Started to re-think in 3rd year. That grad students haven’t figured this out shows a lack of critical thinking.

One reason I’m so prolix on this point is because of the stupid Transit City Plan in Toronto. That thing made no sense. It was way more expensive than BRT, even more expensive than full metro in some cases, yet offered tepid improvement in transit service. Unfortunately the transit establishment got behind it. Part due, I suspect, to the strange grip that LRT is able to exert on the psyches of the adherents – see grad students above – partly due to the general LRT fad, and partly due to rank tribalism. Rob Ford was against LRT, so people against Rob Ford decided to be for it a la the enemy of my enemy is by friend.


Now Rob Ford was no transit advocate, and he didn’t even know why he was right, but he was right. Subways make more sense for Toronto, and the Ford plan had more riders getting better service than Transit City. The “transit” advocates advocating for Transit City were bizarrely in support of a plan with fewer riders getting worse service.

On the specifics of Surrey, again the LRT plan adds next to nothing that a much cheaper BRT line couldn’t offer. And metro to Langley and Metro up and down King George would transform the place in a way that LRT couldn’t. And these metros wouldn’t just be about shuttling people in and out of Surrey but within Surrey as well. Actually a King George Line is more important than extending the Expo Line all the way to Langley, although I would do that eventually.

(One reason for the King George Line is that it could be extended all the way to White Rock. When we get true high speed rail to Seattle,

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Surrey is getting serious:

Surrey business and community groups are  launching a new campaign to get light-rail transit on track for south of the  Fraser. The Surrey Board of Trade announced a new  coalition — Light Rail Links — which is joining the call for an LRT solution to  the region’s lack of rapid transit infrastructure.

Read more here.  Or go here to the Light Rail Links:



Here’s my forecast: Given post-election dynamics in which Surrey mayor Dianne Watts has considerable political capital and leverage, there will be a full-scale push to get a regional, provincial and federal commitment to move quickly on light-rail for Surrey – especially if there is a possible financing package that doesn’t require a new regional tax.

Vancouver will still be years away from getting the consensus needed to push an expensive subway through the west side.  (At best, it might argue that a link is needed to close the gap between the Millennium and Canada Lines – maybe all the way to Arbutus.)    But where’s the money?  And where’s the regional backing?

TransLink will be preoccupied with a new governance arrangement.  The Massey Tunnel will likely be downgraded as an immediate priority.  But there will need to be some offering to South of Fraser if tolls stay on the Port Mann and planning for a new Pattullo bridge anticipates more tolls as well.

So sitting right there, ready to go, is Surrey’s light-rail vision, backed by a coalition of business, community, unions and all parts of the political spectrum.



[Daryl Dela Cruz has a distinctly different view: Go for SkyTrain, he argues (and extensively illustrates) here.]

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