Region on hook for more rail expenses – despite dim prospect for train’s return

Despite mounting evidence that trains will never run in the capital region again  --  taxpayers have spent millions of dollars on railroad infrastructure – and are slated to pay hundreds of thousands more in the coming months.

The CRD is scheduled to upgrade one rail crossing this summer and another in the coming year, at Hallowell Road and Atkins Avenue. Already, the regional government has been required to bring eleven rail crossings up to the code, as it builds the E&N rail trail, at an average of $430,000 per crossing.

On June 20, the CRD parks board will debate whether to lobby for an exemption from these Transport Canada requirements  -- in light of the fact Premier John Horgan recently announced he no longer supports building commuter rail service in the Capital.

CRD director and parks committee chair David Screech says a decision needs to be made quickly.

"What really needs to happen is the province needs to sit down with the municipalities and the CRD that have invested all these funds -- and they need to talk to us about their plans,” said Screech.

In May, Horgan surprised many in the capital, when he told the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce there seems to be no business case for commuter rail – despite his strong support before the election.

 He also acknowledged local governments have made significant investments in rail, based on the expectation that train service would be re-instated.

So how much have taxpayers invested in the abandoned tracks  – since the last train left the station in April 2011? According to a CFAX 1070 investigation, local and regional governments have collectively paid at least $5.4 million to upgrade and maintain the rail, from Langford to Victoria.  

Because the E&N is technically considered an active railway – any roadwork that intercepts the tracks triggers a requirement to bring the rail crossing up to modern national rail-safety standards. That means installing things like rail signals, arms and underground conduits.

Over the past seven years, the CRD has shouldered the lion’s share of these expenses. The parks department estimates it has spent approximately $4.5 million on rail as it completes the E&N rail trail.

Langford has also been required to upgrade several rail crossings at an estimated cost of $800,000 – including current work underway on the Leigh Road railway crossing. In recent years, the West Shore Parkway project required the municipality to close one rail crossing and install a new one. The rail line also added costs, complications, and delays to the Atkins Road bike lane project.

Mayor Stew Young says governments should never have been forced to spend the money.

"Somebody has to fight for the tax dollar,” said Young.  “Common sense says, if the train’s not going to run – hasn’t run for seven years -- why I am paying $400,000 for automated arms when the automated arms will never be used anyway."

Young says local governments should have been allowed to set aside the money, with a promise to make any upgrades if and when train service is reinstated.

But David Screech feels differently.

Next week – when the CRD parks committee debates whether to upgrade the rail crossing at Atkins Avenue, its chair will argue it’s not yet time to pull the plug on the dream of rail.

"I personally find it heartbreaking to think that we're going to say no, that's not ever going to be an active railway again and therefore we don’t need the crossings,” said Screech. “I'm certainly not prepared to make that decision yet."

ANNUAL RAIL-MAINTENANCE FEES ADD UP

Victoria, View Royal and Esquimalt have also been billed for railroad infrastructure.

Each municipality  pays an annual fee to maintain the signals at rail crossings within their borders. Annually, that fee collectively amounts to approximately $46,325  – meaning taxpayers have shelled out a total of about $324,000 to maintain rail signals that have never  been used.

DID YOU KNOW?

The CRD has spent approximately $23.5 million building the E&N Rail Trail so far. Rail crossings account for about 20 per cent of that cost. On July 17, the CRD will hold an open house to discuss plans for Phase three of the trail, running from Atkins Avenue to Savory Elementary school.

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