British Columbia

TransLink forced to delay next step in Surrey SkyTrain extension due to COVID uncertainty

A step in beginning construction on a SkyTrain extension to Surrey’s Fleetwood neighbourhood has been delayed due to “uncertainties in projection future revenues.”

Whether ridership levels will recover is ‘million dollar question,’ says CEO

Translink workers sanitize a Skytrain at VCC-Clark Station in Vancouver earlier this month. No one is sure when ridership will return to pre-COVID levels. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A step in beginning construction on a SkyTrain extension to Surrey's Fleetwood neighbourhood has been delayed due to "uncertainties in projecting future revenues."

TransLink had expected approval from the province in July on its investment plans for a number of projects, but can't go ahead with its submission because long-term revenues and ridership figures are difficult to estimate because of COVID-19. 

"We can't meet the litmus test for certainty … it starts to point to a later approval date for this," TransLink vice-president Geoff Cross told the Metro Vancouver Mayors' Council on Thursday, adding TransLink hopes to move forward in the fall.

The seven-kilometre, four-station extension to 166th Street in Surrey is expected to cost $1.6 billion and was formally endorsed by Metro Vancouver mayors last year. 

Cross said TransLink still believes the project makes business sense and hopes to put forward an investment plan in the fall.

But he cautioned that much could depend on higher levels of government giving more funding than originally promised if transit ridership remains lower for several years.

"Understanding the nature of that will be really critical for us to develop an investment plan and to have a good level of confidence for what we can afford," said Cross.

A significant amount of the budget for the SkyTrain extension to Fleetwood is being covered by TransLink, but the organization faces long-term questions around revenue due to COVID-19. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

Death knell for public transit?

The Mayors' Council meets every month to discuss TransLink issues. Much of their time Thursday was spent discussing whether transit ridership — currently at around 20 per cent of pre-COVID levels — would rebound to as B.C.'s Phase 2 economic recovery begins in earnest. 

"There's an active discussion right now around North America, asking 'Is this the death knell of public transit?' " said Coun. Craig Cameron of West Vancouver.

"I don't think it is, but … do we believe the new normal that we get to is going to be significantly lower than the pre-COVID peak? Are we going to have to do transit differently?"

TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond called that 'the million-dollar question,' and said it would take some time to evaluate the level of ridership that's realistic in the months ahead.

"The shortest answer... is we don't know. There's no precedent for this, there's no playbook," he said. 

TransLink had a record 437 million boardings in 2018 and was on pace to eclipse that in 2019 although full data for the year hasn't been released yet.  Desmond said "none of us expect ridership to recover any time soon" and that there would be likely be plenty of people avoiding transit until a vaccine for the virus is discovered. 

But he expressed hope that Metro Vancouver's culture would allow for a quicker recovery compared to most North American transit services. 

"We have a limited highway network as it is … once we're out of this crisis, people will want to come back and let us do the driving and not be stuck in their car." 

Regular bus fares will be restored on June 1 and TransLink is also expanding the seating capacity on buses while asking people to wear masks.

"We cannot mandate masks. It's a guidance, it's a recommendation," said Desmond.

"[But] if you're in a crowded environment and you cannot make a two-metre physical distance, you're advised to wear a mask."


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