Traffic jam sim header

I was caught off-guard by the new viewpoint article in The Now Newspaper, which claims that there is no more reason to pursue the SkyTrain vs LRT debate because voters supposedly “elected” the party supporting it, so therefore, the debate is dead. Here’s the scoop:

Surrey First was elected in an overwhelming sweep of city council in late 2014, after campaigning with promises of building light rail in Surrey

That means they have a mandate – a mandate to build light rail. That means all the debate surrounding what Surrey wants and doesn’t want is pointless.

(From The Now Newspaper: OUR VIEW: Debate over LRT in Surrey is moot – that train has left the station)

The viewpoint is implying that within the framework of a municipal election, Surrey residents were participating in a fair debate surrounding these issues. It’s implying that by electing the Surrey First Party (led by current Mayor Linda Hepner), Surrey voters endorsed Light Rail because Surrey First also happened to endorse it. The problem with this claim is that….

Surrey residents never had a choice.

Surrey residents did not have a choice to oppose LRT because at the time of the election, as all three major parties competing for Council seats were in support for Light Rail technology. Our candidates for Council never tried to foster a debate to begin with. The SkyTrain vs LRT debate was effectively shut out.

Transportation wasn’t the defining issue in the last elections.

Before you go ahead and conclude from the above that this is indeed not significant enough to result in debate, it is also extremely important to note that in the last elections, transit was not considered to be the most important election issue; it was considered to be the second most important issue – however, it was a distant second. The dominating election issue, affirmed in multiple overlapping polls, was crime.

More than half (55 per cent) of respondents to an Insights West poll conducted earlier this month said crime is the most important issue the city is facing heading into the Nov. 15 election. That’s a big leap from transportation, which came in a distant second at 14 per cent. (From CTV News – “Crime is Surrey’s top election issue, new poll reveals”)

The online survey conducted Thursday to Saturday among 510 Surrey residents aged 18 and over found that crime continues to be the most important issue for most residents (54 per cent), with transportation (16 per cent) a distant second. (From the Vancouver Sun – “Surrey Election extremely close: Poll”)

The Now’s viewpoint article would seem to imply that Surrey’s voting decision was based largely on transportation and support for Light Rail, but that was clearly not the case. So I think it’s pretentious to say that we should just follow the elections results – which could have been a result of numerous factors – and stop the rapid transit debate altogether.

A picture of myself participating in the CiTI rally in 2013
A picture of myself participating in the CiTI rally in 2013

Over the years, I have watched the concern on Surrey transit matters fade into relative insignificance. There used to stronger calls for expanded transit, and so many people here who were passionate on transit issues, particularly on how the South-of-Fraser wasn’t getting its “fair share” on transit compared to the North-of-Fraser. There used to be organizations, like the Surrey Citizens’ Transportation Initiative (Surrey CiTI), which hosted rallies on issues of transit that I participated in (can you see me in the video above?). However, the leaders of these organizations didn’t show up during the 2014 elections. In fact, they have disbanded them or otherwise completely disappeared, because these groups no longer even exist (the www.surreyciti.org website has been out of service for over a year).

Surrey citizens are already less motivated to discuss transit issues than before; now, there has been virtually no discussion on major issues with things such as the proposed LRT system. Now is not the time to apply the brakes when it comes to local transit issues that will affect the lives of everyone living in this city.

More than 1100 people are now calling for a fair debate on the proposed Light Rail.

Say what you will about how (in)significant the issue I am now raising was to decision-makers at election time, but that has changed significantly today. Over 1100 supporters have signed the SkyTrain for Surrey petition urging that the proposed Light Rail Transit line be changed to SkyTrain. This momentum is no secret – and I think Global, News1130, Omni and others had good reasons to bring me in to talk about these issues the other day.

The fact is, issues around the proposed Light Rail system have remained unresolved. Those who are supporting our organization are concerned about issues like whether this is the best way to spend lots of money, how much the LRT will cost to operate, whether congestion will be caused, and what safety issues may arise by having trains interface with everyone on-street. And with the Surrey First-dominated City Council being entirely in support of this, there has practically been no debate allowed. The Mayor and Council aren’t just forcing us to go with their vision – they are forcing us to take in all the issues that will come with it, even if they have gone without discussion.

So here’s what I’d like to say about this: we are demanding a fair debate. It seems like the decision to proceed with Light Rail technology was done with very little actual consultation from potential users. It was practically forced onto us by our Mayor, and moved forward through the stifling of a dialogue on the benefits and tradeoffs.

LRT was not the best option for Surrey

If there was anything that resembled a “fair debate” on this issue – it happened 3 years ago, and concluded LRT was not the best option for Surrey.

Does anyone even remember the Surrey Rapid Transit Study anymore? Let alone the people and the media forgetting it and how important it is to consider the study in this context, but the decision makers and planners that are working on the Light Rail Transit project seem to have forgotten about it as well. They’re now clamoring to have a new business case analysis to qualify for P3 funding, even though there was a perfectly good business case analysis in Phase 2 of the Rapid Transit Study – although it did not come out with a positive outlook for the favoured on-street Light Rail Transit system.

Grassroots advocacy has shaped transit planning in the region.

In this LRT versus SkyTrain debate, there is no referendum. And so, if the proponents of SkyTrain really think they’re going to throw Mayor Linda Hepner and her crew off the LRT track, well, fuggedaboutit.

I want to single out this last paragraph because The Now seems to be in need of a history lesson. They don’t seem to recall that a certain other famous young transit spokesperson from Surrey, who ran for Council on rapid transit issues, was one of the first people to put the consideration of street-level Light Rail on the map in the first place.

Back in 2008, then 18-year-old Paul Hillsdon took on the local media by storm, looking to break-up an impasse on transit planning and offered a solution – street-level Light Rail Transit – that was considered by many to be better than a planned 6km extension of SkyTrain at the time (the recent proposal was for a much better 16km extension to Langley). He then took this issue with him and ran for Council, although did not succeed in getting a seat.

Regardless, Paul put Light Rail on the map and took his success in transit advocacy to even further heights. He was successful in establishing himself as a voice on transit issues in this region (through his website Civic Surrey), and later went on to develop (with a colleague) Leap Ahead, the regional transit vision that became a model for the Mayor’s Transit Plan formed in advance of last year’s transit funding referendum.

The grassroots effort that had started with rapid transit advocacy, continued with the establishment of Civic Surrey and through that the inspiration of numerous other startup transit blogs and bloggers, managed to make this major difference in the way transit is being planned in our region today.

So, I think it’s more than a little unfair to rule out the potential that any of my campaign work (or for that matter, any grassroots transit advocacy) has in shaping transit planning in this region. Paul showed us that a consistent voice and a genuine interest in local transit issues is able to make a real difference – without the context of a public referendum.

There has never been a fair debate.

For the record, I’m not entirely sure if Paul Hillsdon was factual on his argument. When I had a look at his LRT vision, which was built from scratch (my vision for SkyTrain + BRT, by comparison, is based on an already-studied option), I noticed that he had an inconsistency in his cost estimates. Paul’s estimates that came from non-on-street, separated right-of-way Light Rail systems, without accounting for street-scaping costs and other construction costs associated with on-street building. In other words, it seemed misleading.

The capital cost estimates are based on a conceivably generic number of $27 million per km, and that is a problem.  One cost estimate for a certain type of LRT cannot be used generally unless the implementation described is the same kind of implementation and not something totally different.

What this cost he is using describes is the cost of a fully electrified light rail service on the Interurban corridor, a pre-existing right of wayThe same cost cannot describe the cost of implementing an at-grade Light Rail service on-street in Surrey, which is not a pre-existing right of way.

Read more: Inconsistencies in Paul Hillsdon’s 2008 “Transit for Tomorrow” LRT proposal on SkyTrain for Surrey)

Yet when Paul touted his LRT plan back in 2008, as faulty as it seemed, it was met with virtually no resistance. Anyone with a technical/research background could have easily spotted the major flaw in his proposal, but it was never brought up and there were never any attempts by local media to smear him and his efforts to advocate on transit issues.

So why shut me, and my campaign? What’s so special about this campaign that the debate it raises does not deserve attention? Is it special because it happens to be taking sides with grade-separated SkyTrain over ground-level rail? Is expanding SkyTrain something the Surrey Now’s writers and editors hold a long-running bias on, like many people in this region, to the extent where they would want to shut down a productive and highly-needed issues debate?

I don’t understand why The Now Newspaper is having us think that the train has left the station, when it was never even there to begin with. Light Rail isn’t even going to be built for at the very least, the next 3 years. Why are they trying so hard to stifle a debate that still hasn’t happened, and needs to happen? Why say no?

It seems that the Now just doesn’t want to either acknowledge or handle this campaign, given how successful it has become, and how much work it will give them as a result. However, it is their duty to do this as local media. The people of this fine city deserve a fair debate on LRT issues.

FOR SLIDER

22, KPU Geography, J-POP enthusiast. Founding director of SkyTrain for Surrey.

Surrey deserves fair debate on LRT issues