Editorial: What do we get for rail money?
FEBRUARY 19, 2016
Langford’s mayor is running out of patience with the Island Corridor Foundation, and the rest of us should share his frustration. For years, the foundation has teased Islanders with the dream of restoring rail service on the old E&N rail line from Victoria to Courtenay. But despite big plans, earnest negotiations and a lot of talk, there is no train.
For Langford Mayor Stew Young, the latest annoyance is a $50,000 fee from the foundation because Langford wants to build a 255-metre bike path, about half of which would be on an ICF right-of-way.
The foundation charged the fee because Langford hasn’t given the line an exemption on property taxes, but Young says exemptions can only be granted where there is a public benefit. No train, no benefit. No benefit, no tax exemption.
Not surprisingly, Young wants to know what the municipality is getting for the money it’s putting into the foundation, and he wants the foundation to open its books.
Young said it’s frustrating that “there’s no train running, but there’s a bureaucracy attached to no train running.”
“I think that because we’re a member of the corridor and there’s no train running and there’s no guarantee a train will run, we really need to look at what’s our budget on the Island Corridor to manage this,” Young said.
The foundation is a coalition of local governments, including Langford, and First Nation communities that owns the 289-kilometre rail line. It has been trying to restore train service to the tracks, which need significant upgrading to make them safe enough to use.
The last Dayliner ran on Friday, March 18, 2011, almost five years ago.
Since then, the foundation has periodically announced progress in restoring service. In August 2014, it announced that track upgrading would begin that winter. It didn’t. And it didn’t start this winter, either.
Now, the foundation refuses to speculate on when the trains could run again.
The latest delay occurred when the Nanoose First Nation filed a lawsuit claiming a 10.8-acre piece of land through which the E&N tracks run. Until that happened, the foundation was optimistic that the federal government was about to give final approval to its $7.5-million share of upgrade costs.
The $21 million in federal, provincial and local government money pledged for track upgrades will cover only a fraction of the $103-million estimated cost to repair the line. Even with those improvements, the passenger trains will have to run so slowly that travellers would be better off driving.
While every project has setbacks, this one seems to have more than its share. Negotiations with Via Rail, which would fund passenger service, have been tortured. It’s clear that Via wishes the E&N would vanish, so the company doesn’t have to spend another minute thinking about a service that everyone acknowledges will have to be subsidized.
With no track work being done and no timeline for the restoration of service, Young is justified in wanting to know more about the finances of the foundation and its $350 million in assets.
The foundation has promised much and delivered almost nothing. We need to take a long, hard look under the hood.