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Surrey searches for money to keep light rail on track

Community leaders confident city will find funds for multibillion-dollar LRT project
Light Rail Links community coalition member Larry Fisher | Rob Kruyt

The City of Surrey remains confident construction on the proposed Surrey light-rail transit (LRT) line will start in 2018, despite serious questions surrounding regional funding of the project.

Paul Lee, the rapid transit and strategic projects manager with Surrey’s engineering department, said the city is continuing consultation with TransLink.

“We’re working on the design to get this thing done so it’s shovel-ready,” Lee said. “So when the funding is all available we can just push this project out.”

Lee admitted last year’s public transportation plebiscite, in which voters rejected a regional sales tax increase to fund billions of dollars in transit and transportation projects, was a huge blow to the project’s timeline that has forced the city to rethink the funding strategy. He noted there are 11 LRT projects in various stages of development across the country, and that the city has applied twice to the federal New Building Canada Fund in hopes of securing additional funding.

While Budget 2016 indicated that the federal government would be willing to foot 50% of the bill for green-lit public transportation infrastructure projects, and the province will potentially contribute a third, that still leaves a sizable portion of the $2.6 billion price tag unpaid for Surrey’s 27 kilometres of street-level light-rail lines.

Larry Fisher, president of the Surrey-based development company Lark Group and a member of the recently formed Light Rail Links community coalition, said Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner is committed to finding the cash to fund the remaining costs of the project.

“Light-rail transit in Greater Vancouver” was one of only four projects specifically mentioned in the federal budget, but concerns remain as to how shovel-ready the Surrey project is, given TransLink is still preparing the business case, expected to be completed sometime later this year.

“I’m very hopeful [the regional government] will be able to get the funding together,” Fisher said.

“It’s the timing – when we would be ready … in terms of infrastructure. [The federal Liberals] want the money spent pretty soon, so how fast it can all get approved and get done is the question.”

Press materials on the website of the Light Rail Links coalition show photos of LRT trains with the word “Bombardier” on their service displays. Anita Huberman, chief executive officer of the Surrey Board of Trade and a member of the coalition, confirmed that the company “is being looked at as one of the technology solutions” if the project proceeds.

Called Flexity, the Bombardier (TSX:BDRPF) system has already been built in countries such as Turkey, Portugal and Australia.

Lee said he is sure of one thing: if Surrey builds an LRT line, the construction impact will be minor compared with recent SkyTrain projects.

“It will never be as bad as the Canada Line on Cambie Street because that was a cut-and-cover,” he said. “They dug a big hole in the ground. We won’t be digging a big hole; we will be laying tracks so people will continue to have access to the businesses while this is ongoing.”