ELECTION 2015: Transit pledges unlikely to clear impasse

One-third contributions from Ottawa were widely expected for Surrey, Vancouver rapid transit lines

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau meeting candidates and supporters in Vancouver Thursday after promising billions in funding for public transit.

Federal parties are racing to pledge support for rapid transit, particularly in seat-rich Surrey, where the city council continues to push its plan for light rail lines.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau said Thursday the Surrey lines, Vancouver’s Broadway subway and more SeaBus service would likely get federal contributions from an extra $20 billion his party is pledging for public transit over 10 years.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper had been expected to unveil Conservative commitments for transit a week earlier at a campaign event in Surrey, alongside former mayor turned Tory candidate Dianne Watts, until the announcement was bumped by the Syrian refugee crisis.

But support for transit from Ottawa has never been a big question mark for Metro Vancouver mayors.

They’ve assumed one-third federal contributions for the rapid transit projects will come regardless of which party wins.

Unless a federal leader offers more than one third – and none has so far – the big roadblock to new transit lines will remain this summer’s referendum defeat by Metro voters of a small sales tax hike to cover the region’s one-third share of transit expansion.

Surrey is still aiming to advance its $2.1-billion light rail project as a P3. But it has yet to produce a business case. And it remains unclear how the city’s taxpayers would eventually repay costs financed by a private partner.

Nor is there any sign of a new deal afoot between the mayors and the province to deliver an additional TransLink tax source and get the new lines get built as part of a coordinated regional transit plan.

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The campaign promises stacking up for the Vancouver and Surrey lines are likely to remain vague, leaving many questions unanswered after Oct. 19.

One is whether the Surrey project will definitely be ground-level light rail instead of elevated SkyTrain.

SkyTrain, at least down Fraser Highway, would allow a faster, seamless ride without transfer to the rest of the system for passengers boarding in Langley and Cloverdale.

It would be more costly up front, however, and is resisted by Surrey politicians who say light rail better connects residents to local destinations.

Also unclear is the timing of federal grants – could that delay or help accelerate construction?

Then there’s the question of where federal grants might actually flow. To TransLink, possibly conditional on a broader regional transit solution? Or to Surrey and Vancouver to cover just their Plan B schemes?

The devil will be in the details.

For now, upbeat transit funding promises offer no surprises and no breakthrough to the impasse left by the failed referendum.

Dianne Watts spearheaded the push for light rail as Surrey’s mayor and is now running for the Conservatives in South Surrey-White Rock.  Black Press file photo