Yesterday's meeting of the TransLink Mayors' Council offered clues about how the region's rapid-transit debate may unfold.
Surrey mayor Doug McCallum showed up full of bluster about how his city deserved a costly SkyTrain expansion to Langley. He made the case even though there's not nearly the density along the Fraser Highway to justify this expenditure.
McCallum went out of his way to try to demonstrate that Surrey residents didn't want a street-level light-rail project to Newton and Guildford, which was the product of several years of negotiations.
Leading the charge against Surrey's effort to dismantle the regional transportation plan was Richmond mayor Malcolm Brodie, ably supported by the City of North Vancouver's Linda Buchanan and Electoral Area A director Maria Harris.
Coquitlam's Richard Stewart did some political fence-sitting. He said on the one hand that he supports Surrey's desire for an elevated line but also declared that he's never voted for something before without seeing a budget.
The mayor who appeared most supportive of McCallum was Vancouver's Kennedy Stewart. He wants his own Vancouver SkyTrain extension to reach UBC's Point Grey campus.
"I respect Mayor McCallum's voice very much," Kennedy Stewart said at one point.
From the tenor of the debate, observers could easily conclude that Kennedy Stewart may be ready to form an alliance with McCallum.
It's an echo of the days when former Mayor Gregor Robertson joined forces with McCallum's predecessor, Linda Hepner, to back each other's preferred rapid-transit projects.
McCallum's confidence in Vancouver's support was reflected in his repeated requests for "weighted votes" at the TransLink Mayors' Council meeting.
Under a weighted vote, directors' clout corresponds to their municipalties' populations.
Surrey and Vancouver account for nearly half of the region's residents. If McCallum can secure the support of both Stewarts—Kennedy and Coquitlam's Richard—the new Surrey supremo will have more than half the support in any weighted vote on the TransLink Mayors' Council.
McCallum can probably count on the backing of the Township of Langley's Jack Froese, given that the Fraser Highway SkyTrain project would eventually reach Langley.
So even though the news from yesterday's meeting is that TransLink is merely studying the possibility of developing SkyTrain, it appears as though the jig is up for light rail in Surrey.
Technically, TransLink has "suspended" the project. But given the politics around the table, it's dead unless McCallum is forced to resign over some scandal.
All of this will come as a crushing disappointment to urbanists who've repeatedly been thwarted in their desire for street-level train service in the region.
Light rail fits within neighbourhoods, reduces local traffic, covers a larger footprint at a lower cost, and builds community in ways that an elevated or underground SkyTrain never can.
Instead, McCallum will likely get his heavier rail project, which is currently pegged at around $180 million per kilometre, or $2.9 billion.
Given the current funding envelope of $1.65 billion, this SkyTrain project will likely only reach halfway to Langley from King George Station—if it remains on budget.
The big winners will be the manufacturer of SkyTrain and the supplier of ugly guide rails that are a blight on the urban landscape.
If you want to see examples of this, check out the visual impact of SkyTrain along the Lougheed Highway near Brentwood or along No. 3 Road in Richmond.
In the meantime, TransLink has already spent $50 million preparing for a 10-kilometre LRT project linking Guildford, Surrey Centre, and Newton.
It was fully funded under phase two of the regional transportation plan.
The light-rail project would have connected far more Surrey residents to train service than McCallum's SkyTrain project, which will likely terminate in Fleetwood in its first phase. Then McCallum will want more taxpayer funding to complete it to Langley.
Vancouver's Kennedy Stewart wouldn't be so supportive of McCallum's desire to unravel the regional transportation plan if he had to pay a political price.
But he won't because he's just won an election and he's surrounded by a bunch of rookie councillors who haven't paid a great deal of attention to regional transportation issues. None of them are likely to raise any serious objections.
The newly elected chair of the TransLink Mayors' Council, Jonathan Cote, is also unlikely to stand up to McCallum.
That's because Cote knows that the mayors of Surrey, Langley, Coquitlam, and Vancouver would easily have the votes to topple him should he take a strong stand for the sensible LRT line in Surrey.
Back in the 1990s, Metro Vancouver planned to introduce a T-line of light rail connecting Vancouver to Coquitlam and New Westminster.
That was kiboshed when the NDP government under Glen Clark approved the Millennium Line. This occurred even though there wasn't sufficient population along the Lougheed Highway to justify SkyTrain.
Ridership was so low on the Millennium Line in its early days that the U-Pass subsidy needed to be created to get more students onto the system.
Now, McCallum is in the process of destroying a plan for light rail from Surrey Centre along the King George Highway to Newton and along 104 Avenue to Guildford.
This will make it more difficult to attract investment for a high-tech zone around Surrey Memorial Hospital. It will undermine transit access to Surrey's cultural facilities farther south, as well as to concerts and other events in Holland Park.
The SkyTrain to Fleetwood will reinforce perceptions across the region that the city is a bedroom community to Vancouver. No wonder it's so vehemently opposed by the Surrey Board of Trade.
Rather than supporting more affordable light rail, which could eventually connect to all of Surrey's town centres, McCallum will trigger a real-estate rush along the Fraser Highway.
And there's a strong possibility that the two Stewarts will be McCallum's partners in this crime against smart city planning.
The Fleetwood SkyTrain line (let's call it what it is) will do very little to get a large number of people out of their cars at a time when the world is crying out for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But Big Labour will love the Fleetwood SkyTrain because there are lots of jobs involved in building heavier rail projects. And Kennedy Stewart is beholden to the unions for his election victory.
In this region, politics invariably trumps good transportation planning.
The SkyTrain lobby always wins.