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Nov 20,2009 Tri City News

Keep the pressure on to get the kind of transit system the region needs.

That's the advice from outgoing TransLink CEO Tom Prendergast, who spoke to civic and business leaders Thursday at the Metro Cities Conference in Vancouver.

"If you want to maintain livability, if you want to control your destiny, you've got to get on an expansion path," said Prendergast, who returns next month to New York to head the Big Apple's transit system.

He said area mayors and TransLink's board are united but they need to persuade the provincial government of the need for more funding.

"If the province isn't at the table, it's almost an insoluble problem," Prendergast said.

He urged business leaders to help convince the province that B.C.'s success has been and will continue to be tied to the Lower Mainland's fortunes, which will suffer if the region gets mired in congestion and inefficient development.

Prendergast resigned after Metro mayors approved a stop-gap $130-million funding increase for TransLink. A more ambitious expansion at a cost of $450 million a year was taken off the table because the province has so far rejected new funding sources.

B.C.'s Comptroller General has suggested some cuts could be found by slashing underused bus routes.

Prendergast said some pruning will be needed, but wholesale cuts are unwise, particularly in underserved areas where TransLink has promised improved service and needs to grow ridership.

He said suburbs where transit use is low shouldn't yet be held to the same standard for cost-recovery rates as the City of Vancouver, where residents have had decades of good service to adapt to using transit.

"When you wean a baby, there's inefficiencies there. But you have to go through that to get to the point where he knows how to eat. It's the same with transit."

Asked how optimistic a South of Fraser resident can be now that better transit service will come, he said: "I think they can be optimistic as long as the mayors stay united, the TransLink board stays united and we continue the dialogue with the province."

Steps that need to be taken to foster more transit use include building more park and ride lots, he said.

"That's something TransLink has generally not done but needs to do," he said, adding motorists who get ticketed for using a mall parking lot won't use transit.

Most people need both a car and the ability to use transit not one or the other, he said, and advances may come gradually, by encouraging motorists to park one or two days a week at first in favour of telecommuting, transit or ride-sharing.

Kwantlen Student Association rep Nathan Griffiths said improved transit is needed to serve campuses in Cloverdale and Langley and asked about the potential to extend passenger light rail to the Fraser Valley.

"There's really no impediment," Prendergast responded. "It's overcoming the cultural embracement of SkyTrain that has existed to date."

He said TransLink is seeking to cut through the pro-SkyTrain "cultural bias" as it embarks on a careful examination of rapid transit technologies for line extensions west along Broadway and south of the Fraser.

At-grade light rail typically can't carry as many people or run as fast as grade-separated SkyTrain, but it's much cheaper and advocates say many more lines could be quickly built for the same budget, particularly in sparsely populated areas.

Prendergast predicted the first light rail line that comes to the Lower Mainland will lead to much greater appreciation of its potential.

The growth of the region outside Vancouver makes expansion of transit critical, he said.

"It's not a matter of when Surrey passes Vancouver in population. It's when. And the same can probably be said for Abbotsford [further into the future]."

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