Line to Langley may still be SkyTrain: TransLink CEO

Kevin Desmond says Fraser Highway rapid transit technology still to be decided

TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond in a question-and-answer session at a Surrey Board of Trade meeting Tuesday.

The planned rapid transit line down Fraser Highway from Surrey to Langley – touted by the City of Surrey as part of its intended light rail network – could still end up being an extension of SkyTrain, according to TransLink’s CEO.

Kevin Desmond made the comments in a question-and-answer appearance before the Surrey Board of Trade Tuesday, highlighting one of the biggest uncertainties to be resolved around the transit expansion plan as area mayors and the province work to hammer out a funding solution.

“There are differences of opinion,” Desmond said, who in a later interview cited divergent views of the province, Surrey and Langley about what technology should be used for the Fraser Highway line.

“We really have to sort that out in the months ahead,” Desmond said. “Also, SkyTrain is more expensive than light rail. So if it’s SkyTrain it’s going to be a bigger funding request.

“The province is a major funder so they’ve got a voice in this. Obviously the City of Surrey has a very significant voice.”

Desmond took over as TransLink CEO four months ago, coming here from Seattle.

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Opponents of light rail have argued SkyTrain would be more effective, particularly on Fraser Highway, to deliver a higher speed no-transfer service all the way into Vancouver.

Surrey supporters say light rail is necessary for both Fraser Highway and the ‘L’ line along King George and 104 Avenue to ensure the trains move Surrey residents effectively within the city, not just to speed them to and from the rest of the region. The choice will have major implications over how Surrey develops in the decades ahead.

TransLink is building dual business cases for both light rail and SkyTrain options down Fraser Highway, Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said Tuesday.

She said she hopes that analysis points to light rail, but she acknowledged the final say on technology will rest with the province, which she said has tended to favour SkyTrain.

“Their leanings are towards that which they know and it’s an uphill struggle to say that we want the entire system to be one technology,” Hepner said.

She noted the province “has been open minded enough” to allow the dual business case, which examines capital and operating costs over 25 years.

“I think the Langleys are quite prepared to accept anything as long as a system gets going and they have a system.”

A decision on technology likely must be made by this fall, she added.

Besides being more expensive, Hepner argues SkyTrain would be an eyesore slashing across more neighbourhoods.

“I’ve seen pictorially what a SkyTrain elevated system looks like as it cuts through Fleetwood and I don’t like it.”

And she argues an all-light rail expansion would be more efficient and better positioned to then extend into future neighbourhoods, such as South Surrey and other areas of Langley.

Among the criticisms leveled at LRT is that light rail trains at grade would be vulnerable to traffic congestion problems and that they would be only marginally faster than existing buses.

Minister for TransLink Peter Fassbender denied the province has a preference for SkyTrain on the Fraser Highway line.

“I’m not prepared to take a position yet,” Fassbender said. “We will look at a whole bunch of issues. Urban form. We’ll look at tying in to the regional network and what kind of passenger counts we’re expecting – not just going from east to west but also coming from west to east – in other words people coming in to Surrey and the Langleys for jobs in the future.”

Fassbender said noted the line to Langley is to be phased later than the ‘L’ line in Surrey, so there’s more time to settle the technology question.

Q&A WITH TRANSLINK CEO

On road pricing

Desmond said some sort of tolling reform is a “discussion that has to happen” with tolls expected to come on the Pattullo and Massey bridge rebuilds, in addition to the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges. “My sense is dynamic pricing will be an element of that,” he said, adding the goal is to use time-of-day pricing to encourage some people to travel at off-peak times. “You want to try to move the peak around,” he said. “That’s really the prize.”

On past criticism of TransLink

“This is a really, really good transit system,” Desmond said, adding the focus during the plebiscite on the CEO’s salary was “utterly irrelevant” compared in the context of the billions of dollars needed to expand the system.

On Compass cards

Desmond said Seattle’s Orca card took 13 years to fully develop and implement and still only has 70 per cent use, compared to 94 per cent already for Compass across the TransLink system. “The takeup is extraordinary,” he said. “Compass card works ladies and gentlemen, it works just fine.”

On disabled access

Desmond said TransLink continues to work towards a technology to allow quadriplegics independent access through the faregates over the next year and a half to two years.

On the Evergreen Line

Desmond predicted the SkyTrain extension to the Tri Cities will increase ridership, reduce congestion and help build support for the next round of transit investments.On transit expansion

“Break the log jam. We all know that we’ve got to find solutions. We all have a good sense of what the solutions should look like. Let’s just do the final piece and agree on that and make it go forward… Every day we wait to make the investments it’s going to cost more money and traffic’s going to get worse.”