Surrey’s Mayor thinks helicopters for the 1% are more important than transit

Surrey’s Mayor thinks helicopters for the 1% are more important than transit

From The Globe and MailPeople travelling the 40 kilometres between Surrey and Vancouver tend to drive or take transit. Surrey’s mayor wants to add a third option: helicopter.


…I have often shared the sentiment that Surrey’s transit future is in a bad shape as it is, but an announcement today by the City Mayor just took that sentiment to a whole new level. A network of helicopter take-off and landing pads to service business-men and wealthy commuters who can afford it has just jumped the priority list over a rapid transit system to service the city’s transit-dependent.

Yes, I said that right. The City of Surrey has decided to leave the city’s transit commuters behind to facilitate helicopter commutes for the 1%. If you don’t believe me, you can read her speech transcript for yourself.

Hepner between helicopters and LRT

The media still has yet to catch onto the ridiculousness and mismatched premise of this idea, but soon will come the rewatches and re-reads of the Mayor’s State of the City speech during which this is bound to be uncovered. The announcement was made immediately after a segment of the talk that focused on the city’s transit ambitions (specifically, the City’s plan for an LRT system). The segment was very short and offered no promises on the transit, and then quickly segued into announcing the plan for helicopters and helipads – which did come with a solid promise to start construction by 2017.

Now, let me back up a little bit and tell you exactly what is wrong here.

First, Mayor Hepner stated that she could only “believe” that construction of a proposed Light Rail Transit network would be started by the year 2018. And, that’s after initially promising that it would be finished by 2018 in the last elections.

“[Ms. Hepner] said she hopes to have construction [on the helipads] under way by this time in 2017.”

Secondly, she announced that the City would potentially be spending untold millions of taxpayer dollars on a network of helipads (and the associated land) with construction starting in 2017 or at least a full year before anything on rapid transit begins.

Now, a rapid transit network for far more people might be a significantly bigger public investment with bigger risks, so to an extent it is kind of understandable why this has ended up jumping the gun into first place.

Surrey’s LRT proposal has suffered major delays in producing a business case and a $500 million increase in cost

No less, the City’s Light Rail Transit proposal been thrown in limbo due to major delays in producing a business case, a $500 million increase in cost and ongoing standstills in finding regional fundingno thanks to a serious lack of confidence in the establishment conveyed in the transit referendum “no” vote. Not to mention, the serious drawbacks of an LRT system and the significant opposition to LRT from a group which I lead (opposition that’s so strong that even the Mayor of the City of Langley announced his preference for a SkyTrain extension instead).

Although the LRT proposal has its serious problems, deciding that facilitating helicopters can come first is inexcusable. To be unable to make a serious commitment on a transit network meant to service thousands of city residents, yet be completely able and willing to commit on something that will pretty much exclusively service the “1%” and let them literally fly over everyone else, really suggests to me that the Mayor’s priorities aren’t to ensure the best for the people that the city wouldn’t be without, if we’re to believe what she mentioned earlier in her speech.

What is a city, but its people helicopter-entitled 1%?

And what is Surrey but its helicopter-entitled Mayor. If there’s any tidbit of the proposal that we should all be looking at, it’s Mayor Hepner’s personal stake in desiring the service…

“She emphasized the city is looking beyond links between Vancouver and Surrey to flights to the B.C. capital of Victoria, which she said she would use herself.”

We already know this Mayor and Council to be relentless in billing taxpayers for the cost of trips. With the helicopters being said to cost $12 to $16 a minute I can’t imagine how much taxpayers will be paying to give the Mayor the luxury to fly over traffic to Victoria. And I certainly don’t think, from any feasibility perspective, that it is acceptable.

As a young, transit-dependent person living in this city (and one among potentially thousands of others now and in the future) I think to say that I’m outraged would be a serious understatement.

I must also seriously question the timing and viability of this proposal.

Sky Helicopters, a helicopter company mentioned by the Globe and Mail that is considering partnering with the City in delivering the service mentioned in the Globe and Mail’s article that they had been discussing this with the city for “several years”. This really makes me wonder why steps couldn’t have been taken earlier to implement this infrastructure within the City at a reasonable and low cost.

For example, the City decided to blow over $100 million on a new city hall that’s been put through significant criticism over its over-budget cost. For $100 million I don’t think it would have been too much of a stretch to include a rooftop helipad in the design of the new City Hall and within that cost.

This is the same Mayor who at the beginning of her term insisted that Surrey taxpayers should pay for a waterfront ferris wheel. Photo: City of Surrey

So why now? Well, only a couple of months ago, The Province came out with an article (“High-end Metro Vancouver real estate buyers commuting by helicopter” – March 14, 2016) discussing how real estate buyers, realtors and other business-people in the developer community are commuting by helicopter between Vancouver and expensive Fraser Valley estates.

“Usually we take six (Concord Pacific realtors) at a time, flying two of our smaller helicopters in formation,” Westlund said. “In one trip we covered about seven of their developments. They like getting the lay of the land.”

It should be noteworthy that the company that is mentioned in the article as facilitating these commutes is the same one that’s in talks with Surrey in establishing the heli-service.

I wonder which of the numerous developers, business elites and business associations who donated big bucks to the Surrey First election campaign is Hepner trying to feed from her hand.

Surrey LRT cost increases to $2.6 billion

Surrey LRT cost increases to $2.6 billion

Surrey LRT header generic

If you've hard about the Surrey Light Rail Transit project (and how I am leading the opposition campaign), you've probably heard most people refer to the project as having a projected cost of about $2.1 billion.

Well, that changes today. The capital cost of Surrey's Light Rail Transit (LRT) proposal has increased to $2.6 billion, according to a new corporate report released by the city.

Download the City's report

From City report 2016-R050
From city report 2016-R050

Pending whether the City claims there was a typo in the report, you're reading the above correctly. The cost has increased to $2.6 billion, which is slightly above the rate of inflation compared to the previous 2012 estimate of $2.18 billion, reported in 2010 dollars.

Rapid transit to White Rock is officially out

I became the centre of something of a publicity flip last week when CKNW news radio attempted to turn around an issue I pointed out over the lack of a rapid transit link to South Surrey/White Rock on the City's LRT promotion map, something the City responded to by saying that the map was only meant to show the LRT network, and that I edited the map and was messing up the context (I wasn't).

Now it's become clear that proper bus rapid transit to White Rock has been dropped from the city's project radar, because it's not included on the list at all.

This also means that the actual cost increase for the LRT project is closer to $700 million. The 2012 "LRT1" estimate in the Surrey Rapid Transit Study included the BRT link from Newton to White Rock. This estimate only includes the LRT project portion of the original plan.

What this means for LRT in Surrey

While the cost of the LRT project has increased, the major issues with the project have probably remained the same: it's still an on-street LRT system, and so it's still going to come with major trade-offs such as potential safety issues, a compromise in speed and reliability, fewer travel time and economic benefits, and higher long-term operating costs.

The most interesting thing about this cost increase is the effect it's going to have on the project's business case.

Staff anticipate that the Surrey LRT Project will be successfully screened-in for Round Seven. This will require the submission of a completed P3 Business Case in March 2016. The scope of work for completing the Business Case includes additional engineering design, geotechnical work, preparation for environmental assessment, and public consultation.

City report dated June 2015

Supposedly, according to the City, the business case isn't finalized, and the City and TransLink have been rushing to put together a new one in time for a March 2016 (as in, yes, this month) deadline to qualify for P3 Canada project funding.

However, any new, final business case that attempts to portray the LRT proposal in a positive light will come into serious conflict with the results that were found in Phase 2 of the Surrey Rapid Transit Study – which found the overall business case for the Light Rail proposal to be negative, with a 0.69:1 benefit-cost ratio (compared to a more positive 1.45:1 benefit-cost ratio for SkyTrain). And, that result was based on the original (lower) LRT cost estimate.

With all of this in mind, I'm starting to believe that there isn't going to be an LRT business case ready for this month. I haven't heard any new technical details on this project (until word of today's cost increase reached me), with everything happening behind closed doors (if it's even happening at all). The standstill reminds me of the one faced by the Evergreen Line as a Light Rail project, before the Province stepped in with a final business case and changed the Evergreen Line to its present form as a SkyTrain extension. (See also: The Real Evergreen Line Story).

After a desperate and questionable LRT poll, a broken LRT promise by the City Mayor, silence over brand new transit buses and still no update from TransLink on Phase 3 consultation, it's becoming more and more apparent that the City of Surrey's LRT project is seriously doomed to fail.

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