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Regional directors support rail plan

A request for funding from the Island Corridor Foundation received preliminary approval by the Regional District of Nanaimo.

During its committee meeting Tuesday, board members, with the exception of Dave Willie from Qualicum, approved a $945,000 one-time, grant-in-aid, contingent on the foundation’s ability to produce a commitment from VIA Rail to reinstitute passenger service along the Vancouver Island rail corridor.

The grant-in-aid would be an addition to the 2013 budget and cost homeowners approximately $3.12 per $100,000 in assessed home value.

The money is part of a $20.4-million price tag the foundation has slated in its business plan for railway upgrades that would allow a daily passenger service to run between Courtenay and Victoria, originating out of Nanaimo.

Approximately $14.5 million of that balance is funded by federal and provincial grants announced earlier this year.

Five regional districts, including the RDN, were asked to provide $3.2 million to get work started on the upgrades. Three districts approved their portion of the contribution: Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District, Cowichan Valley Regional District and the Capital Regional District. The Comox Valley Regional District has yet to vote.

The foundation’s business plan indicates it will pursue financing from lenders for $2.2 million of the remaining balance, and Southern Railway of Vancouver Island, which would operate the passenger service under contract with VIA Rail, has committed to pay the final $500,000 of the balance.

According to Graham Bruce, the foundation’s chief operating officer, the $20.4 million will provide money for replacement of one in every four rail ties and bring the track up to safety standards to allow rail service for the next 10 years.

“The plan behind this is that you have the passenger service running for that 10-year window, which allows the freight company to go and build on other opportunities,” he said. “At the end of 10 years, if there hasn’t been substantial improvements in rail service, in people utilizing it – either from the public sector or for freight or tourists or excursions, whoever will be here is going to have to make the decision.”

Bruce said money would provide an opportunity to turn things around for rail on Vancouver Island.

“What we’ve been able to do, is to attract Southern Railway to be the railway operator so that you have a professional organization, not railroad romantics, not people who are working off the back of a napkin, but people who actually know how a railway runs, and works, and what’s required to make it run and work,” said Bruce.

Discussion on the Island Corridor Foundation proposal took up two hours of the meeting, as directors asked questions of Bruce. The board also heard delegations from two members of the community opposed to the funding request, as well as an endorsement from Andre Sullivan, of the Nanaimo Economic Development Corporation.

Directors were cautiously optimistic about the proposal. Area F director Julian Fell said he planned to support the request to allow the process to continue, but may change his mind when the board makes its final decision at its next regular meeting on Nov. 27.

“I wonder if we’re being led into a black hole,” he said.

Nanaimo Mayor John Ruttan also supported the funding request.

“Some point we have to make some tough decisions in politics, and to me, this is one of them,” Ruttan said. “Let’s give this a chance, I think it will work and I think it could get more cars off the road.”

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