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City urged to look again at rail option for Johnson Street Bridge

Feb 08 2012
Construction workers were busy last week at the E&N station next to the Johnson Street Bridge. 

Construction workers were busy last week at the E&N station next to the Johnson Street Bridge.

Photograph by: Bruce Stotesbury, timescolonist.com

Victoria should consider building the new Johnson Street Bridge strong enough to accommodate future commuter rail, Coun. Ben Isitt says.

The previous council, in a move designed to shave about $12 million from the bridge replacement costs, decided to eliminate the rail crossing in the bridge project.

The council protected a right-of-way for the addition of a separate rail bridge in the future, should the need arise and outside funding become available, while acknowledging the costs of adding a rail bridge later would be drastically higher - perhaps as much as $36 million.

But Isitt said Tuesday he wants the council to reconsider and direct staff to draft amendments to the bridge project charter to ensure the new bridge is built strong enough to accommodate commuter rail in the future.

Isitt said the city should build one major infrastructure rather than two. "It's not being fiscally prudent to plan to have to build a whole separate bridge for $35 million or more down the road when . . . if we can invest a modest amount today to ensure the bridge is strong enough so that, whenever we do find other funding partners to operate the E&N and run a commuter rail service from points up-Island and Langford into downtown, we can do that fairly quickly," Isitt said

But Mayor Dean Fortin said that, far from being prudent, changing the design at this point and including rail ran the risk of turning the Johnson Street Bridge project into the equivalent of "a fast-ferry fiasco."

None of the federal, provincial or regional governments have stepped forward to contribute to funding for a rail crossing, he said. With major track improvements needed, the prospect of commuter rail on the E&N line is not imminent. The E&N Dayliner service has been suspended since March, 2011 and an estimated $15 million in capital improvements is needed before the line would be considered safe enough to even start carrying passengers again.

City staff and consultants were clear at a council workshop Tuesday that changing course on the bridge project now would mean not only $2 million already spent in design would be for nothing, but $21 million in federal funding for the project - contingent on the bridge being completed by March 2016 - would be at risk because of the delay.

"It would be imprudent of us to spend that kind of money and jeopardize this whole process - $21 million from the federal government - on a hope [commuter service might one day be run on the E&N line]," Fortin said.

"It's $2 million in design work. We wouldn't be able to complete the project in time, which means the $21 million in federal funding is lost and, because it's a change in scope, we would have to go back to referendum."

But Isitt questioned whether a change in design would mean the 2016 completion deadline could not be met. He noted that the city's lead consultant, MMM Group, said in a letter to the city, in July 2009, that it could deliver on a new bridge within 21 months to meet what was then a March 2011 federal deadline for stimulus funding.

"If we were to change the scope of the project now and amend it to ensure it's strong enough for rail, we would find there still are four years before that March 2016 cutoff. So if they could do it in 21 months a few years ago, certainly they could do it in three or four years at this stage," Isitt said.

The 130-year-old E&N line, which runs from Victoria to Courtenay, has long been seen as a key transportation link and future site of a commuter rail service.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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