Blue Bridge rail deal not dead yet

 

City ‘throwing good money after bad,’ Fortin says

Victoria council isn’t ready to give up on the dream of bringing the E&N train across the Johnson Street Bridge, despite having no regional funding partners.

For the third time, the City of Victoria extended its deadline to gauge whether it can eventually secure grants for the project.

The decision ignores recommendations by city staff.

“I know (staff’s) goal is to keep us on track, to keep us on budget, but part of our goal is to preserve that rail,” said Coun. Philippe Lucas.

On Feb. 4, council approved a $77-million project to build a bridge that does not include rail. Council agreed, however, to add rail to the project if higher levels of government share in the additional $12-million cost.

Grants are pending for the rail project, but the city must begin design work on it right away to be ready to proceed if funding follows at a later date.

This “parallel design” process will cost up to $700,000, or roughly $80,000 per month.

On Feb. 23 the Capital Regional District refused Victoria’s request to share the cost of this design work. Many CRD directors stressed the importance of rail as a future commuter line, in principle. While they agreed that crossing the bridge is critical to the train’s success, they also heeded their staff’s advice.

“The CRD is not able to fund the $700,000 cost for the city to continue to undertake two parallel design processes, as it is outside the scope of existing CRD service and spending authorities,” stated a feasibility report.

The decision disappointed Victoria councillors.

“What we saw … was a complete lack of creativity and I think there is also a lack of courage,” said Coun. Lynn Hunter.

The CRD’s refusal left city council with a predicament: kill the possibility of rail, or spend taxpayer money on a project that may fail anyway. The two-hour debate at the Feb. 24 meeting left council divided.

Mayor Dean Fortin urged his fellow councillors to stop throwing good money after bad.

“I feel like a gambler going back to the table,” he said. “There has been a clear provincial decision that said they are not funding this rail … We’ve heard specifically and publicly from Central Saanich that they’re not in. We’ve heard indications that Saanich won’t support it; we’ve heard indications that View Royal won’t support it.”

For the project to go ahead, three different grants must be approved. A “no” from any of them signals a death sentence, argued Fortin.

First, the Island Corridor Foundation has applied for $15 million from a federal-provincial infrastructure fund to upgrade the rail line between Langford and Victoria. Pending the outcome of this grant, the Capital Regional District will consider a $4.5-million grant toward the rail portion of the bridge. Finally, the city is also waiting on a $6.5-million grant from the Union of British Columbia Municipalities, drawn from gas tax funding.

The problem is the timing. The city doesn’t have the luxury to wait and see, argued city staff.

“Funding … must be confirmed before the city can issue a request for proposals in July to retain a shop fabricator,” said project director Mike Lai in his report. “Any delay past July jeopardizes the project.”

Meeting the city’s July deadline is improbable for the CRD. Even if directors agree in principle to create a function for the bridge, funding must be approved by each council, which would likely last until September.

Council voted to postpone its decision until March 24.

 

rholmen@vicnews.com