City commits $80,000 on “faint hope” of rail

Decision to delay “throwing good money after bad”: Mayor

Victoria council isn’t ready to give up on the dream of rail on the Johnson Street Bridge, despite having no regional funding commitments, The city has extended its deadline — for the third time — to gauge whether it can eventually secure grants for the project. The decision ignores recommendations by city staff. “I know (staff’s) goal is to keep us on track, to keep us on budget, but part of our goal is to preserve that rail,” said Coun. Philippe Lucas.On Feb. 4, city council approved a $77 million project charter to build a bridge that does not include rail. Council agreed, however, to add rail to the project if higher levels of government share in the additional $12-million cost.Grants are still pending for the rail project, but the city must begin design work for this option right away, in order to be ready to proceed if funding follows at a later date.This “parallel design” process will cost up to $700,000, or roughly $80,000 per month.Last Wednesday, the Capital Regional District refused the city’s request to share the cost of this design work. Many CRD directors stressed the importance of rail as a future commuter line, in principle. While they agreed that crossing the bridge is critical to the train’s success, they also heeded their staff’s advice.“The CRD is not able to fund the $700,000 cost for the City to continue to undertake two parallel design processes as it is outside the scope of existing CRD service and spending authorities,” according to a feasibility report.The decision disappointed Victoria councillors.“What we saw yesterday was a complete lack of creativity and I think there is also a lack of courage,” said Coun. Lynn Hunter.The CRD’s refusal also left city council with a predicament: to kill the possibility of rail on the bridge, or spend taxpayer money on a project that will likely fail anyways. The contentious debate lasted two hours at Thursday night’s council meeting, and left council divided.Mayor Dean Fortin urged his fellow councillors to stop throwing good money after bad.“I feel like a gambler going back to the table,” he said. “There has been a clear provincial decision that said they are not funding this rail. … We’ve heard specifically and publicly from Central Saanich that they’re not in. We’ve heard indications that Saanich won’t support it; we’ve heard indications that View Royal won’t support it.”For the project to go ahead, three different grants must all be approved. A “no” from any of them signals a death sentence, argued Fortin.First, the Island Corridor Foundation has applied for $15 million from a federal-provincial infrastructure fund to upgrade the rail line between Langford and Victoria. Pending the outcome of this grant, the Capital Regional District will consider a $4.5-million grant toward the rail portion of the bridge. Finally, the city is also waiting on a $6.5-million grant from the Union of British Columbia Municipalities, drawn from gas tax funding.  The problem is the timing.The city doesn’t have the luxury to wait and see, argued city staff.“Funding … must be confirmed before the City can issue a Request for Proposals in July to retain a shop fabricator,” said project director Mike Lai in his report to council. “Any delay past July jeopardizes the project.”Meeting the city’s July deadline, however, is improbable for the CRD. Even if CRD directors agree in principle to create a function for the bridge, funding must be approved by each of their municipal councils. The approval process would likely last until September.While most on council agreed rail is a “faint hope,” they voted to postpone until March 24.The delay gives the Island Corridor Foundation more time to secure a grant. The delay also entails spending $80,000 on parallel design plans over the next month. Funds will be drawn from city reserves, and result in the deferment of other capital projects.Fortin and Coun. Marianne Alto voted against the motion. rholmen@vicnews.com