BC Transit is focused on the West Shore - Uptown - Downtown axis, desiging an alignment that would run along the Trans Canada Highway between Langford and the Uptown Mall, and then along Douglas St. to downtown Victoria. While the public, (at least those paying attention to the project), strongly supports LRT (Light Rail Transit), provincial managers have favoured BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) in developing plans for the system. The strong community support for LRT has lately brought Transit on board and more detailed work on the rail option is being undertaken.
Public enthusiasm may be tempered by the capital costs of LRT - it will take longer to implement and have a much higher initial cost than a bus system, but the many benefits of a rail based system may yet persuade decision makers to start planning now rather than waiting the 10 years or so when some planners suggest Victoria will be ready for LRT. Why spend extra money on a short lived bus based system when the need for rail is visible on the horizon?
The challenge for the E&N is that its potential is more distant and the costs associated with upgrading the heavy rail system more forbidding. A phased approach and incremental financing to get some useful service improvements have been proposed, but the longer term costs are still daunting.
Still, the rail has the potential to fill some key service gaps that have not been entirely accounted for in transit planning. Hundreds of commuters could take advantage of a commuter rail (not LRT) service that covered the long haul from Nanaimo through the Cowichan Valley and right to the door of the Canadian Forces Base at Esquimalt. It could help relieve some congestion on the Malahat Drive - a 350 metre high climb on the Trans Canada Highway separating Victoria from points north on the Island. The Malahat already suffers heavy commuter traffic and sometimes winter weather clogs up the highway. A well run E&N could offer relief for growing numbers of commuters living out of the transit region and accessible to the railway.
The $500 million calculated several years ago for improvements to the Malahat makes rail and transit alternatives look a lot more affordable; but tight funding and a focus on Vancouver area projects leaves little to invest in Greater Victoria's transportation challenges.
It's an unfortunate state of affairs, as crunch time is here for the little railway. Victoria's Johnson St. Bridge project is a case in point. $12 million is needed to keep rail on the bridge, something that would better commuter rail's chance of success. So far, $15 million in costs have been identified elsewhere for the rail as far as Langford, and that only to achieve minimal standards for a modest commuter service. Anything beyond that, either geographically or in terms of service levels, can be expected to add more to the bill.
It's costly, but is it worth the investment? Certainly many of us in the community think so, but for Victoria in particular, the rail on the bridge might be a bill too big to swallow. We've asked repeatedly for provincial assistance, without success, and have now appealed to the Capital Regional District - our services partnership with other local governments. Apprehension exists around that table so the request for funding, although supported by the Mayors of numbers of affected communities, has met with less enthusiasm around some council tables and may face a rough ride at the regional board.
Victoria cannot, by itself, foot the entire bill. We are already in for $50 million and the clock is ticking. We need to get on with our schedule or face the prospect of losing $21 million in federal funding or missing construction deadlines. We all want to see rail come to town, but clearly it is a regional service that needs regional support. The rail doesn't run from downtown to Vic West, a few hundred metres away - it runs half way up the Island, and most pointedly, through several suburban municipalities who are now being asked to help out. If they aren't now willing to invest in key elements of the rail corridor, what does it say about their commitment to the rest of the line?
Stay tuned. If the money can be found, rail stays in the design. If not, we can preserve the right of way but can't build the rail bridge right away. It's an expensive decision either way - it's too costly for our taxpayers, but for everyone, a separate project will cost much more. If we want the rail to survice, we'll all need to pitch in. Here's hoping.