Extensive public transit: the missing piece in Delta's ambitions

A new mayor always brings new optimism to solving old problems. But when it comes to transportation, Delta faces many challenges out of their immediate control.

Geography and demographics perpetually conspire against the municipality, but changes are on the way

Per capita, South Delta, Ladner and Tsawwassen have a low use of transit compared to the rest of Metro Vancouver, according to TransLink data. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

In Delta, mayor George Harvie says the most pressing issue for residents isn't housing, but transportation. 

"Our biggest problem right now of course is the replacement of the [Massey] tunnel, and also with regards to availability of more of a robust transit system," Harvie said.

The 60-year tunnel — and the lack of clarity in how or when it will be replaced — is the most visible problem when it comes to Delta's transportation deficiencies.

But as Harvie says, transit infrastructure that lags behind most of the Lower Mainland is nearly as restrictive to the efficient movement of people around his expansive municipality.  

The mayor said he supports trying to "get people out of their cars," but in the Metro Vancouver area south of the Fraser River, it's difficult to do that with the current TransLink services.

Harvie's complaint isn't a new one for Delta, nor is his grievance unique among leaders in the region. 

"I'm gonna say no to that," said White Rock Mayor Darryl Walker, when asked if transit service was satisfactory. 

Added Tsawwassen First Nation Chief Bryce Williams​: "We feel a little underserved here in the south side of the Fraser."

A new mayor always brings new optimism to solving old problems. But when it comes to transportation, Delta faces many challenges out of their immediate control. 

No central nodes

TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond acknowledges that the region south of the Fraser River has less than its fair share of transit. 

"We need to catch up," Desmond says, pointing to the new strategic transit plan for the area, which will see 50 per cent more hours of operation for buses south of the Fraser, as well as new double-deckers.  

However, TransLink's biggest constraint is the geographic reality of the municipality — with three different suburban population centres —​ Ladner, Tsawwassen and North Delta — separated by a triangle of agricultural land, creating efficient transit routes is easier said than done. 

"Transit always works best, no matter where you are in the world, where you have a large number of people at point of origin demanding the service, and either a single major point of destination or a series of major centres that are generating a lot of activity," said Desmond. 

Strip away the urban studies jargon, and Desmond's point is obvious to anyone with a passing knowledge of Delta: there's no specific places with a huge number of people that need transit, and those that do need a bus are as likely to head east to Surrey as they are north to Richmond or Vancouver — to say nothing of people travelling between the town centres.   

Or as he summarized later in his response: "Yeah, it is a challenge."

TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond said improving transit south of the Fraser River is a priority for the organization. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

More allies on mayors' council?

Ultimately, a decision on the Massey Tunnel will be made by a provincial government with no representation in Delta or Richmond, while TransLink's direction is dictated by the Mayors' council, a place where in recent years former mayor Lois Jackson often found herself isolated. 

Harvie is optimistic that the large turnover of mayors, including in neighbouring Surrey and nearby White Rock and Langley City, might change the regional dynamic. 

"The priorities for the last ten years have been the Canada Line, and extensions into Coquitlam, and Maple Ridge, etc. I understand that from a regional planning perspective, but we're at the point of time now where south of the Fraser should be taking regional focus," he said, while praising the Desmond's leadership of CEO. 

Uphill battle

But good relationships don't necessarily lead to results. 

Consider the issue Harvie just sent a letter to TransLink about: the restoration of an express bus from Delta to downtown Vancouver. 

Eliminated after the Canada Line was created, it remains a perpetual request of residents, particularly seniors, who don't want to deal with the stress and issues that come with transferring at the Richmond-Bridgeport station.

Desmond said a solution 100 per cent funded by TransLink wasn't in the cards  — "those dollars could be used for service hours elsewhere south of the Fraser where we think they could be more productive" —  but Harvie says he'll look at a public-private partnership. 

In the meantime, TransLink will continue to add service — and Harvie will push for on-the-ground improvements for an issue largely out of his control.   

"We can certainly attract businesses here by having a good low base tax system that has good city services," he said.

"But what we can't do is ensure that they can get their employees to work." 

Metro Matters: On The Road is exploring how new city governments throughout B.C. are approaching age-old issues (some political, some not) in their communities.

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