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Watts’ next priority: Light Rail by 2012

Mayor Dianne Watts used her sixth annual State of the City address to make a strong case for a light rail system across Surrey.

Watts noted the successful multi-modal transit system in Portland, whose spine is a light rail network, as a model for Surrey and the South Fraser area. Calling light rail a more elegant solution for the urban landscape than SkyTrain, she asserted that it is also a more cost effective option as the City’s tries to connect all the town centres to rapid transit. Watts also highlighted the billions of dollars of economic development that has been prompted by Portland’s transit investments. Standing behind a rendering of a light rail vehicle headed to “Surrey Central,” it was evident that Watts believes an LRT system will be the infrastructural backbone to propel Surrey into the future.

Light Rail, as many readers will likely know, was the centrepiece of my campaign for City Council in 2008, where I argued that spending $1 billion on a 6km SkyTrain was an inefficient use of taxpayers money when that same dollar figure could pay for a network of Light Rail lines connecting all the communities South of the Fraser. That same argument is at the foundation of Watts’ latest initiative, and with her popularity and influence both regionally and provincially, she’s betting that she’ll be able to make the concept an actual reality.

During her speech, Watts called for a sustainable funding strategy at TransLink within “a month or two,” as well as design plans for a Light Rail system completed by next year. If this sounds ambitious, that’s because it most certainly is. TransLink has had a funding dilemma since its inception in 1999, with long awaited plans for transit expansion halted by a lack of revenues, leaving the regional transport system in a purgatory limbo with both poor roads and poor transit. TransLink is expected to begin another consultation on funding, what seems like the twelfth in a decade, to evaluate additional revenue sources, including a vehicle registration fee, carbon tax revenues, and bridge tolls.

Adopting such revenue sources in the past relied on the stamp of approval from the Campbell Liberals, who took a decided approach to distancing themselves from the finances of most Crown corporations or similar entities like TransLink, strategically eschewing any criticism for higher fees. However, with Christy Clark now leading the party in a new direction, it is possible that this indefinite showdown between the region and the province over funding options for TransLink may come to an end. Presumably, if Watts is calling for a new funding strategy within months, there will likely be some solution on the horizon, otherwise why go out on a such a limb?

If that is indeed the case, Surrey may be poised to embark on its most radical transformation since the construction of the Port Mann Bridge in the 1960’s. That piece of infrastructure, and all the roads and highways that followed, precipitated the suburban landscape that dominates the City. With a Light Rail system in place, development will have the infrastructure and impetus around which to urbanize and densify, creating new nodes of vibrant urban villages, all connected by quick, sleek, and green transportation. In a time of increasingly higher gas and energy prices, having that infrastructure in place within the next ten years will be key to Surrey’s continued prosperity and evolution.