Federal Conservatives have pledged to cover up to $700 million of a proposed $2.1-billion light rail rapid transit network in Surrey but acknowledged the project still needs an elusive regional funding source to proceed.
The campaign announcement Monday by former Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, running as a Tory in South Surrey-White Rock, along with Industry Minister James Moore, was widely expected and follows Liberal and NDP signals that they, too, would fund the federal share of rapid transit lines in Surrey and Vancouver, if elected.
Area mayors have long assumed one-third funding from Ottawa regardless of the party in power, but the regional share that would have come from a 0.5 per cent regional sales tax evaporated when Metro Vancouver voters defeated the transit plebiscite on the new tax.
"They did have a plebiscite, it did fail, so now they have to come up with their third and the province has to come up with their third," Watts said.
Moore, who is not seeking re-election, said only the Conservatives have explicitly committed to fund Surrey light rail and have a dedicated $84-billion public transit fund to deliver the money without running a deficit or raising taxes.
The light rail project consists of an 11-kilometre 'L' line running from Newton to City Centre up King George Boulevard, then east to Guildford, as well as a 17-kilometre line down Fraser Highway to Langley City. A B Line express bus route would extend south from Newton to White Rock.
Moore said the Surrey LRT commitment doesn't close the door on a federal contribution for the Broadway SkyTrain extension in Vancouver or potentially other transit or transportation projects in Metro Vancouver.
But he said the Surrey project is "ready" to advance while the Broadway subway is not.
Moore also doused speculation that the federal government might switch the proposed technology from at-grade light rail to elevated SkyTrain on at least the Fraser Highway line, as happened with the Evergreen Line.
"The choice of technology we leave to the city," Moore said, noting it's a "contained system" geared to serving Surrey residents.
Asked if SkyTrain might not better serve passengers boarding in Langley so they don't have to change trains in Surrey to reach Vancouver or Burnaby, Moore said the government will follow the City of Surrey's wishes.
"That's the technology they decided. Ottawa is not going to second guess that."
Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said she now hopes to have construction started by 2018 on the 'L' line but conceded it won't be operating by then as she promised in her election campaign last fall.
"I wish it was up and running by 2018 but I've lost several months that I don't think I can catch up on."
Hepner said the Conservatives' pledge for the project is "really important" but added she would welcome direct funding commitments for Surrey LRT from all other federal parties.
She has yet to clearly define how Surrey would raise the money to either cover the region's $700-million share of the capital cost, or else to make eventual payments to a P3 partner that might finance the cost of construction.
Hepner suggested a road pricing system to raise revenue within Metro Vancouver could eventually be in place to deliver the region's contribution.
"There are funding formulas and then there are financing options," Hepner said. "I could be looking at a financing option not unlike Canada Line."
There is also uncertainty around the cost estimate.
TransLink officials said Friday they are not yet confident that either the Surrey or Vancouver rapid transit lines would come in close to their proposed price tags.
"There is no business case," said project critic Daryl Dela Cruz, who said he will continue to press for SkyTrain instead. "The Conservatives have made a very blind commitment to a project that seems to be very motivated by insider connections."
He argues at-grade light rail trains will be vulnerable to traffic problems and offer no significant reduction in travel time compared to express buses.
Moore said B.C. Transportation Minister Todd Stone has told him the province is confident the project is economic and viable but added the $700-million federal contribution is fixed.