GUEST COMMENT: Liberals can save rail, win NDP votes

The B.C. Liberals have it in their power to steal thousands of Vancouver Island votes from the NDP.

By G.E. Mortimore

B.C. Liberals have it in their power to steal thousands of Vancouver Island votes from the NDP.

They can restore some sparkle to their clouded name by intervening at the last minute to save Vancouver Island’s railway from destruction.

Through this move, Christy Clark and colleagues could capture a big chunk of what might be called the soft progressive vote on the Island. So it seems to me.

The soft progressives are people whose election-day decisions are shaped by what they see as likely problem-solving performance, not by loyalty to a party label.

Arguably most soft-progressive Vancouver Islanders lean toward the NDP because of that party’s proven record of useful social invention.

The record stretches from Tommy Douglas’s leadership in launching medicare in Saskatchewan along with a balanced budget, to Dave Barrett’s startup of public car insurance in B.C. at a time when many uninsured drivers were roaming the roads and causing widespread pain and loss.

But B.C. Libs – by their good luck – could inherit the creative-government role. Unless they do act immediately, we can say goodbye to rail and to any hope of using the historic E&N to lighten the costly load of clogged traffic on the highways linking Victoria with Courtenay and Port Alberni, which are dangerously narrow in places.

For anyone who follows provincial politics, the opening for the Libs is in plain sight. I’m not sure the members of the Christy Clark gang have the courage and vision to pull off this coup, but maybe they have. We’ll see.

Vancouver Island has a transportation problem. Re-routing part of the highway would cost $1 billion (nine zeroes) plus environmental damage. For one-tenth of that amount, we could fix the whole railway, stations and all, and get it running.

Victoria city council voted to build a new Johnson Street bridge without a rail link. But the B.C. Libs still can reverse that petty, short-sighted local decision and bring about a wiser outcome for the benefit of the whole Island – even though the Victoria station has already been closed and the Budd cars used by Via Rail for its Victoria-Courtenay run have been shipped away East.

The Libs can do it by matching the $21 million federal grant that drives the bridge replacement project, investing provincial money to put rail on the new bridge, starting Victoria-Langford track improvements and promising to upgrade the railway, step by step.

Anti-rail campaigners will raise a minor stink, but at a time when both the U.S. and China are pushing ahead with energy-saving, greenhouse-gas-saving rail networks, the renewal of Island rail will gain wide approval.

It will take strong yet friendly senior government pressure on Victoria council to bring back rail to the bridge, as Step One toward smart transportation. Step Two is starting to build the trackside economic sinews of the rail corridor while upgrading the line Victoria-Langford.

You must do both jobs at the same time, like the old party stunt of simultaneously rubbing the head and patting the belly.

Such wealth-building, job-making co-ordination requires a new partnership for mutual advantage linking federal, provincial, regional and municipal governments.

If Premier Clark manages this feat, she will earn respect and challenge the inventive brainpower of the NDP to go one better.

What if we do have to wait four years longer to balance the provincial budget? Economic revitalization and job-making has higher priority.

Siemens Corporation was ready in the 1990s to lend a modern rail vehicle for a trial Victoria-Langford commuter service. A few fusspots in Esquimalt derailed the project.

But Siemens or another builder of rail rolling-stock might be ready now to set up a factory and testing yards here. That would be a good start on TOD – transit-oriented development.

G.E. Mortimore is a Langford-based writer for the Goldstream News Gazette.

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