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City of Victoria abandons Johnson Street Bridge rail plan

The City of Victoria’s faint hope of finding funding partners to save the E&N rail on the Johnson Street Bridge fizzled Wednesday.

“It’s a reluctant decision that we have to take,” said Coun. John Luton. “Many in this community are committed to supporting commuter rail into downtown Victoria.”

With the exception of Coun. Geoff Young, all on council voted to nix the $12-million project to include rail on the bridge.

That means the new $77-million bridge will have three lanes of traffic, two bike paths and a multi-use trail, but no train tracks.

The train’s final stop will likely be situated in Vic West instead of downtown. The city will preserve the rail corridor in case funding for a rail bridge is prioritized in the future.

Wednesday’s decision marks a surprise change of direction.

On Feb. 24, city council agreed to plan for the inclusion of rail at a cost of $80,000, with the intention of reviewing the decision March 24. The one-month delay was intended to give potential funding partners time to come forward with cash commitments.

Two new pieces of information came to light this week, however, which swayed city councillors to end the waiting game early.

First, a grant application of $6.5 million for the inclusion of rail fell through.

“The Union of B.C. Municipalities staff have informally advised the city that the rail component does not fit the definition of public transit which is required to be eligible for the gas tax fund,” explained Mike Lai in his staff report.

Second, a $21-million grant promised by the federal government in 2009 is on the line.

“Staff have been advised that the agreement will not be recommended for signing by the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities until the city makes a final decision of the project scope,” wrote Lai.

A new federal budget March 22 with expected reductions, and a federal election likely on the horizon could both delay the grant for several months, the report continued. “The city cannot commit to large purchases such as pre-ordering steel without a signed contribution agreement.”

Victoria councillors took the news badly.

“I had something of a sleepless night trying to understand how rail does not fit the definition of public transit,” said Coun. Pam Madoff. “It’s as if everything is conspiring against us.”

Mayor Dean Fortin focused his comments on future possibilities.

“This is not the end of the dream, folks,” he said.

A free downtown shuttle could pick up commuters in Vic West and transport them to various locations in the core.

“Let us sit down and talk with B.C. Transit, and rail and corridor planners and say ‘how do we make this all work?’”