They had many questions and they did so reluctantly, but directors at the Regional District of Nanaimo this week gave provisional approval to a request for $945,000 in funding to upgrade the E&N Rail line on Vancouver Island.
That funding however is contingent upon regular passenger service being resumed.
If it receives final approval at the next full RDN board meeting, it will result in a one-time tax increase of $10.92 on a $350,000 property.
The issue was hotly debated Tuesday night as delegations and directors spoke both for and against the proposal by the Island Corridor Foundation to upgrade the trestles and rail bridges between Victoria and Courtenay.
Speaking in favour of the plan was Andre Sullivan of the nanaimo Economic Development Corporation, who stressed the money would unlock over $20 million from senior levels of government — all of which would be spent on Vancouver Island.
His support wasn’t unconditional however, as he called for a caveat to be placed on the funding that required passenger service to be restored.
Speaking against the plan was Qualicum Beach resident Jim Bergot, who said there was a disturbing lack of information being shared by the ICF about the proposal and expressed concern that the quoted price to get rail service restored was unreasonable.
This concern was echoed by several directors at the meeting.
“I guess what really concerns me is that when I read the reports … it says rehabilitation will cost $80 million,” said Qualicum Beach director Dave Willie. “So when I see a business plan from the freight side that doesn’t even hit a million and a half dollars a year, I’m trying to figure out who is going to cover this $50 to $60 million over 10 years, when the business plan doesn’t have that much revenue. How can we make the numbers work? If the freight doesn’t work, there’s no passenger train.”
Parksville director Marc Lefebvre also had questions about the proposal.
“The whole issue begs the question of a Vancouver Island transit strategy and how rail fits into that,” he said, noting as well that the repair estimate for the tracks seemed low. He also asked about contingency plans for major repairs, should they be required.
Coombs-Errington director Julian Fell said he was willing to support the request at the committee level, but stressed he had serious reservations, which, if not satisfied in the next two weeks, could result in him changing his vote.
In response, Island Corridor Foundation head Graham Bruce stressed that Southern Rail has agreed to be the railway operator and the funds being requested were deemed sufficient to run passenger rail service for the next 10 years.
“This gives us a 10-year opportunity to turn it around,” he said. “If there haven’t been substantial improvements in rail service, in people utilizing it or transportation of freight or on the tourist excursion side, then whoever will be here then will have to make the decision that on Vancouver Island we gave it a good shot, but it won’t work on Vancouver Island.”
The money, he said, would give the rail transportation system a chance. If directors refused to give it that chance, that would likely result in the end of rail on Vancouver Island.
Under the ICF plan, passenger service would start in the morning with a Nanaimo to Victoria run, followed by a return trip to Courtenay and ending up in the evening in Nanaimo.
The motion to support the funding passed, with director Willie voting in opposition.