Surrey transit shortfall has to be confronted in new Translink plans

“We have nothing” when it comes to transit,  a Surrey councillor told me Friday, a perspective that has to be kept front and centre as Translink develops its long-term plans.

Surrey Mayor Diane Watts is championing three light-rail lines for her city, all plugged into the Surrey City Centre Skytrain terminus. But since the Surrey LRT campaign began, Translink’s drive to cut costs has resulted in service reductions in Surrey and other south of Fraser cities.

Why? Because Translink managers are using “service optimization” to concentrate their fleet in “efficient” areas at the expense of “low productivity routes.” This was the main result of the last three years of relentless demands that Translink produce more service without new revenue sources.

Transit expert Jarrett Walker points out in this recent post that “running transit like a business” sounds appealing, but inevitably comes at the expense of transit coverage: the buses may be full, but the network is often smaller and trip frequency is lower.

Not surprisingly, Walker points out, elected transit commissioners usually insist on providing decent coverage. After all, their voters want to ride. But Translink’s board is not elected.

As Walker puts it:

” . . . Simply cutting low-ridership services is a value judgment, not a technical decision.  It reflects a community’s view about why it runs transit.  In an ideal democracy, making those decisions  is not the task of managers or consultants.  It’s what we pay elected officials for.”

To win support south of the Fraser for new transit investment, it makes sense to increase bus service, as efficiently and as quickly as possible, to build ridership in anticipation of LRT.

Where would these new riders go? Undoubtedly many would be heading to Vancouver, either downtown or the Broadway Corridor. Here, thanks to “optimization,” buses are so full that thousands of passengers are being passed up daily, a key reason why Vancouver believes Skytrain in a tunnel is warranted on this corridor.

The third “emerging priority” Translink keeps raising is a gondola from the Millennium Line to SFU on Burnaby Mountain, a proposal that reportedly has a terrific business case and would free up a lot of buses.

Send the buses, and then some, to Surrey. Without a quick, tangible increase in service, there’s little reason to hope these voters will be ready to support new funding in a referendum next year.