Long waits for buses, overcrowding, and mothers getting left behind with baby carriages are familiar scenes for Surrey resident Jeannie Peltz. She knows how hard it is to get around the city without a car. She was waiting for a bus at the Surrey Central Station when a young man approached her with a plan to alleviate the situation.
The man, who turned 18 last February, was Paul Hillsdon, an independent candidate for Surrey council and proponent of a light-rail system across the city. Hillsdon also wants this system extended to the Township of Langley and the City of Langley.
Peltz didn’t need a lot of convincing. “It’s a wonderful concept, and I hope it comes to be,” Peltz told the Georgia Straight later.
Hillsdon’s “Transit for Tomorrow” plan proposes to shift the $1.1 billion that it would cost to extend the SkyTrain’s Expo Line by six kilometres within Surrey, and use the funds to lay a 43.4-kilometre network of electric rail across Surrey and the two Langleys.
Sitting down with the Straight on a bus-stop bench, Hillsdon explained that the three lines in this street-level system would connect with two points on the Expo Line.
A 26.2-kilometre interurban line, which would use a railroad track currently devoted to freight, would serve as the main link for the three lines. It would run from Surrey’s Newton Town Centre to Langley’s city centre. This line would connect with SkyTrain’s Scott Road Station in Surrey.
From Langley’s city centre, the system would branch to another line—the proposed 200th Street Line—that would link up to four other neighbourhoods and town centres in the two Langleys in a seven-kilometre stretch.
At the other end, the Newton Town Centre Line would converge with the third line—the 10.2-kilometre King George Line—connecting Surrey’s city centre and Guildford Town Centre. It would also connect with SkyTrain’s Surrey Central Station.
With transportation as the centrepiece of his council campaign, Hillsdon has spent much of his time trying to connect with transit users at bus stops and SkyTrain stations. Unlike most politicians, he hasn’t put up lawn signs. He also thinks door-knocking is an inefficient way to relay his message.
“As you can see, no one is campaigning here right now, so there’s a huge untapped minority of the population, and my plan is very specific for transit riders, so it makes sense to sell it to them,” Hillsdon said.
Hillsdon may be on to something policymakers should consider, according to Garland Chow, an associate professor at UBC’s Centre for Transportation Studies.
Chow explained to the Straight that it’s more expensive to put up an elevated train system than street-level rail, although the former is faster and cheaper to operate if there’s a population density to support it.
“What it’s doing is paying for a cheaper system, which doesn’t move lots of people real fast,” Chow said of Hillsdon’s plan. “But because you’re using a cheaper system, you can connect to more places. That’s what he’s doing. He’s making the tradeoff.”
Speed is the least of concerns for Joseph Zaccaria, cofounder of the South Fraser OnTrax, an organization that advocates for passenger-rail service.
“Stations can be eliminated during peak times,” Zaccaria told the Straight. “When we have peak traffic, we can reduce the number of stops.”
His group’s Web site recalls that a railway called the Interurban transported people from Vancouver to Chilliwack until the 1950s. Meanwhile, the Surrey First coalition of Mayor Dianne Watts is also looking at light rail. In a policy statement, the coalition cited TransLink estimates that light rail would cost $27 million per kilometre, compared to $127 million per kilometre for the Evergreen Line connecting Lougheed Town Centre with Coquitlam Town Centre through Port Moody, and $233 million for the UBC/Broadway Line.
TransLink spokesperson Ken Hardie told the Straight that the transportation authority isn’t on the same track as Hillsdon regarding light rail in Surrey and Langley. “We’re not convinced at this point that this corridor touches the population centres that we would want to see connected with a fairly expensive transit system,” he said.