Island towns unite to push Via for train deal

Vancouver Island’s towns, cities and regional governments have banded together to pressure Via Rail into negotiating a new deal for local passenger train service.
In a letter sent this week, the Association of Vancouver Island Coastal Communities, which represents 51 local governments on the Island and Sunshine Coast, called for the speedy resumption of negotiations between the Island Corridor Foundation and Via Rail.
“We seem to have some foot-dragging from Via,” said Sidney Mayor Larry Cross, who penned the letter to the Crown corporation as association president.
“It’s very frustrating. We’re hoping to get it going. So much work has gone in at this point, and to have this holdup, at this stage, is virtually running counter to public policy set by the federal and regional governments.”
The Island Corridor Foundation, a charity made up of First Nations and local governments that own the Island E&N rail track, proposed a new plan for passenger train service on the Island in April.
The plan calls for a morning run to carry workers from the mid-Island into Greater Victoria, and an offer from the foundation to take over almost all of Via’s local responsibilities for ticketing, scheduling and maintenance.
The proposal has the backing of Island communities, because it makes sense for local transportation needs, Cross said.
The Island Corridor Foundation has criticized Via for not formally responding to its April proposal.
“Via does have the funds for this type of activity. … It’s really not much of a burden on Via in terms of its operation, [and] the local group wants to handle as much [responsibility] as possible,” Cross said. “So you have to question what’s going on here.”
The Island Corridor Foundation has access to $18 million in regional, provincial and federal money for track upgrades to the E&N line, but the funding is contingent on a new service contract with Via Rail.
The $3.4 million from regional governments is tied to 2013 and 2014 budgets, and may not be sustainable if there continue to be delays with Via, according to the letter from the Island association.
“Time is of the essence and we are asking that you respond accordingly,” read the letter, copies of which were sent to the federal and provincial transportation ministers, and Island MLAs and MPs.
“If regional districts feel it’s not going to happen, they have other uses for that money,” Cross said. “They are not going to leave that commitment on the table forever.”
Federal Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt, who oversees Via Rail, was not available for comment Thursday, but is scheduled to be in Nanaimo for a port authority conference on Monday.
Via Rail did not return a request for comment.
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