OPINION: Rail can wait, buses for the valley can be done now

A 2-hour transit connection between Chilliwack, Abby & downtown Vancouver doesn’t have to cost billions

Travel on a good train – one that blasts past traffic whilst affording commuters decent amounts of leg room – and you quickly realize it’s the best way to travel.

So I get why the dream of light-rail from Vancouver to the hundreds of thousands of people in the Fraser Valley doesn’t die. It’s an idea worth talking about.

But sometimes, I think, a focus on trains as the end solution to the region’s transit woes bogs down actual efforts to make it easier to get from Abbotsford and Chilliwack to Vancouver.

Take the well-meaning Rail To The Valley group’s long-standing idea to electrify the inter-urban line between Chilliwack and Surrey.

Former Langley Township mayor Rick Green made the pitch this week to Chilliwack. He says the line can be converted for just millions per kilometre and, in the end, riders could get from Chilliwack to Surrey in 90 minutes.

The thing is, you can already use transit to get from Chilliwack to downtown Vancouver in a little more than two hours, and you could dramatically shrink that time – and make things easier for passengers – for the cost of electrifying a couple kilometres of track.

The Fraser Valley Express takes 69 minutes to get from downtown Chilliwack to Langley’s Carvolth Exchange. From there, it’s a 58-minute bus and SkyTrain ride to downtown Vancouver.

Yes, a train would be nicer and would skirt by traffic jams. But the inter-urban line would also miss some key residential areas in Abbotsford and Chilliwack.

You would also have to front a ton of cash on the hope that people would use it as much as you think. If they don’t, it becomes a fiscal disaster.

Buses on the other hand….

The Fraser Valley Express has performed better than expected since it’s launch a few years ago. Services have been added and increased. But it’s still a service being done on the cheap, as something of a pilot project. The line does well connecting Abbotsford and Chilliwack, but when it heads west, to Langley, it stops at the Carvolth bus exchange.

You can take a fairly direct bus from there to Lougheed Station in just 30 minutes. And then you can hop on a SkyTrain to go anywhere SkyTrain goes. But good, reasonable commutes don’t have three legs. There are too many ways for things to go wrong. Too many connections to make. Too many schedules to juggle.

Transit works when people plan their lives around it: when a person decides to move to a neighbourhood because they know that they can get from there, to their job or other amenities, reliably and easily.

That middle leg may be super reliable, but you don’t know that when you’re moving to a new place.

Ending the Fraser Valley Express at Carvolth seems like it was done less for passengers and more for bureaucratic or cost-saving reasons. Finish the line at Lougheed, and the cost would probably have been a harder sell.

When launched, the cost of the bus was pegged at $1.35 million annually. The province paid half. Abbotsford and Chilliwack paid the rest. How much more would it take to run that bus straight to a SkyTrain station? How much more on top of that to boost its frequency?

Rail – maybe alongside Highway 1 – is a great end goal.

But the province is set to spend billions-with-a-B bringing SkyTrain to Langley over the coming years. It seems eminently reasonable to ask them to kick in a tiny fraction of that sum – let’s be real ambitious and say $4 million annually – to provide a cheap and easy alternative to driving for the 250,000 people that live in Chilliwack and Abbotsford. This doesn’t have to be complicated.

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