For the second time in two months, Victoria city council delayed its deadline for the rail component of the new Johnson Street Bridge.
The prolonged indecision could either save the future commuter line or end up costing taxpayers an extra $700,000 for nothing.
The issue dates back to commitments made in the referendum on bridge spending.
In November, Victoria residents voted yes to spending $77 million on a new bridge, without rail.
The project scope came with one caveat: if by December higher levels of government agreed to share the $12 million cost, Victoria would add rail to the project.
Come December, council abandoned its deadline. Instead it sent requests to the Union of B.C. Municipalities and neighbouring municipalities for grants and cost sharing agreements.
On Feb. 4, council deliberated on a staff recommendation to nix rail, in light of the fact that no funding commitments have come through.
The timelines are tight, argued consultant Francis Hartman.
“Making decisions in a timely fashion is absolutely critical to the success of the project,” said Hartman.
Project delays would likely result in increased steel costs, increased labour costs, and could result in the loss of the city’s $21 million federal grant.
Instead of heeding its staff’s advice, council voted to wait at least two more weeks.
On Feb. 15, the Capital Regional District board will decide whether to commit $5.5 million toward the cost of the rail project. Victoria council will reconvene the following week to make a decision.
Most on council argued in favour of a “parallel design process,” meaning the bridge project team will launch detailed design plans of both options: with and without rail.
This strategy will cost an extra $700,000, but has the advantage of keeping both options open as late as June, without delaying the project’s target completion date.
Come early summer, council will learn whether it receives a $6.5-million grant through the UBCM’s gas tax fund. If successful, the city can proceed with rail and simply scrap design plans that don’t include rail.
The plan left many on council feeling torn.
“Pushing the decision making back is costing us money,” said Coun. Lynn Hunter.
Council promised the bridge replacement project would not increase taxes, she said.
“I want to honour that commitment … and yet I’m conflicted because I want rail.”
Councillors Philippe Lucas and Geoff Young argued rail must be included in the bridge project with or without regional support.
Lucas suggested the city ought to spend 20 per cent of its capital budget for the next four years to fund the project alone, if necessary.
Graham Bruce of the Island Corridor Foundation said bringing rail all the way to downtown Victoria, instead of just to Vic West, is critical.
“Once you start to lop off pieces, then where do you stop with that,” he said.
Bruce has applied to the provincial government for a $15-million grant to upgrade the rail corridor with the aim of introducing commuter line to Victoria.