Monday, February 6, 2012

Build the bridge Victoria voted for

Victorians voted in a referendum in 2010 for a bridge without rail.  For many of us committed to seeing rail service maintained on the Island, the loss is frustrating even if the results are clear.

Transporting freight and connecting distant communities along the Island with a more sensible commuter rail service seems like a worthy investment.  It was one the city was prepared to make before “save the bridge” organizers derailed the first design for a new crossing in a counter petition campaign.

Preserving the rail crossing was the least important of the many costly priorities Victoria voters were prepared to pay for on their own.  Provincial funding for the project never materialized even as the federal government committed their biggest capital investment in the city’s history to the new bridge.

Now the province is on board to help rescue the rail line across the region, but the federal government has shied away from coming to the table on what promises to be a more ambitious project than the incremental investment that railway owners the Island Corridor Foundation have been clear will be needed over the longer term.

Many Victorians want to see the rail succeed; some support bringing it back across the bridge; but what was clear from the referendum result was that they don’t want to pay for a clearly regional project without help from other communities and senior government funding.  Victoria has already gone to the CRD and both provincial and federal governments asking for their help in finding funding and creating a mechanism to bring the CRD in too, but the commitment stops as soon as it becomes clear that it will cost their taxpayers more and now.

The referendum gave the city authority for a specific project that didn’t include rail.  Changing the scope and adding new costs to the project would probably require another referendum.  The federal contribution is limited to $21 million and they won’t be increasing that if the city introduces costly scope changes.  A bigger threat may be the delay in design and construction that pushes completion beyond the deadlines imposed by the funding agreement.  Victoria alone would be on the hook for the full cost of any work not finished by the program deadline and any changes that drive up costs will be solely at our expense too.

It’s a costly exercise in refighting the referendum.  Nobody should be under the illusion that the last election gave license for a new council to revisit the vote.  Changes to council resulted for a variety of reasons – nobody ran against the bridge, at least not in a purposeful, public fashion.

Still, it seems everything old is new again.  The idea that we need to lay the foundations for LRT on the bridge got laid to rest some time ago.  Some current critics looking to preserve rail service on the bridge took part in the BC Transit consultations and helped identify alignments and picked technologies for rapid transit in the Capital Region.  Many know that the E&N is a complement to, not a replacement for, the Langford to Colwood – Trans Canada Highway – Douglas corridor chosen for the new LRT line.

There are so many reasons LRT doesn’t work on the E&N on technical grounds.  The freight service needed to pay operating costs will be compromised by whatever passenger service is brought back to the line so there are limits to how many trains a day they can manage.  The limited right of way and multiple road intersections create expensive and complicated design problems that won’t be addressed by the modest investments some rail proponents are selling as an easy fix.  There are few destinations and trip generators along the route, and not much sense in targeting development along the line.  It’s still a worthwhile investment, but it won’t be cheap and it won’t work as LRT.

On the financial ledger, there is limited interest at the CRD table in tackling even the easier track and tie costs of the rail; not yet enough senior government support to refurbish the rest of the line and a clear decision from Victoria voters on the limits of their investments.  The bridge needs to proceed as planned.  Rail should have a good future on the Island and in the region, but stalling this important project on hope alone would be a poor choice for Victoria.

Getting on with the building the bridge Victorians chose, by a substantial margin, is the right direction for council, even if new councillors believe they were delivered a blank slate on our future when they were elected to office.