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Peacock Op Ed: Consideration for Transit: More People are Settling in Surrey than any other B.C. City (Surrey Business News)

Which B.C. city has experienced the largest population increase since 2011? Most readers will not be surprised at the answer: Surrey. Between 2011 and 2015, more than 43,000 additional people became residents of Surrey, which translates into an average of 900 more people per month over the past four years. During the same period, the City of Vancouver recorded the second biggest absolute population gain of just over 29,000, followed by Coquitlam (+14,000), Richmond (+11,700) and Langley District (+10,600).

While Vancouver’s population is still significantly larger, Surrey is gaining more new residents every month and every year. Put another way, Surrey currently accounts for about 20% of Metro Vancouver’s population, yet it is absorbing closer to one-third of the region’s new residents. If the trends evident in the past four years continue, Surrey is on track to become the largest city in the province sometime around 2035. And, with mounting housing affordability issues in Vancouver and a much greater supply of land in Surrey, it is possible that Surrey will become the biggest city in the province sooner than 2035. While patterns over a short four-year time frame are not a sufficient basis for long-term projections, it is worth noting that Vancouver’s annual population growth rate has dipped from 1.6% to just 0.8% over the past few years while Surrey’s growth rate has remained stable around 2% annually.

When thinking about regional transportation planning, population growth dynamics are an important consideration. The federal Liberal government’s first budget will deliver billions of dollars in economic stimulus. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government are committed to funding new infrastructure, especially as it supports communities and helps families. The Liberal election platform stated that the government “will invest in public transit to shorten commute times, cut air pollution, strengthen our communities, and grow our economy and much of this will likely be directed towards cities.” The platform reinforces this commitment by promising to “provide long-term predictable federal funding” to make transit plans a reality, and it points to rapid transit service along the Broadway corridor in Vancouver and light rail in Surrey as examples of projects that the new government will be looking to support.

Federal funding has always been a necessary component of financing for large and costly transit infrastructure. And all indications are more federal funding for transportation projects in Metro Vancouver will be coming. The challenge is that Ottawa’s money will only cover part of the capital cost of new projects, which means the province, the region, and users may need to cover a portion of the costs. So while increased federal funding is welcome, residents of Metro Vancouver may soon be faced with having to decide on the best model for ensuring regional funding for new transit development—only a short time after last year’s failed plebiscite.

At a high level, there are good reasons to support light rail in Surrey. The fast expanding population is one factor. Additional transit capacity is and will be necessary to accommodate this demographic growth. A transit line would also provide a major opportunity to help shape community growth and encourage densification along proposed transit lines. Another consideration is that Surrey and other cities south of the Fraser River do not have the same level of transit and bus service as Vancouver and other communities that lie north of the Fraser. Light rail transit would greatly enhance transit service in Surrey and Langley.

On the other hand there is also a solid business case for the Broadway transit project. In Vancouver, the Broadway corridor is reportedly the busiest bus route in North America and the existing bus system often is often badly overcrowded with insufficient capacity during peak hours. As a well-established, high volume corridor, Broadway is a good candidate for more investments in rapid transit.

While federal funding for improved transportation infrastructure and services is necessary, it will likely come in the form of a lump sum and may not be tied to specific projects. TransLink, the province and local governments will need to determine how the funds will be spent. Ideally, both of the major projects on the books in Metro Vancouver will proceed. But there is a risk that funding challenges compounded by ever-present regional tensions will complicate project sequencing. If so, lower service levels coupled with Surrey’s rapid population growth suggest that new transit projects south of the Fraser should be a top priority.

Ken Peacock is Chief Economist and Vice President of Business Council of B.C. 

As published in the April/May 2016 edition of Surrey Business News