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E & N owners seek $3.2m from regional districts

Oct 12 2012

The debate about taxing Island property owners to pay for passenger rail service likely will start in November.

Politicians on five regional boards representing voters between Victoria, Courtenay and Port Alberni have been asked to contribute $3.2 million to the cost of E&N Railway track restoration.

A federal-provincial commitment of $15 million for track and railbed repairs materialized last year, but work won't begin without the $3.2-million injection for structural repairs to 48 bridges and trestles.

Representatives of the Island Corridor Foundation, which owns the track, have been lobbying regional boards for funding since August. This week, the foundation went public with its appeal for support.

Board members of the capital, Nanaimo, Cowichan, Courtenay and Alberni-Clayoquot regional districts have instructed staff prepare a report listing options for raising property taxes to raise the $3.2 million.

"The request has been made to all five [regional districts], but they will decide the contribution allocations," said Graham Bruce, the foundation's chief operating officer.

A year ago, it appeared the railbed repairs would begin in the spring. Then a foundation study made it clear that bridge and trestle repairs are also needed.

The costing report is expected to list various options after crunching such factors as population, track mileage and amount of benefit each municipality would derive from rail service.

Once the report is out - it's expected in the next few weeks - regional boards will decide how to proceed.

"I think there's going to be lively debate, no question about it," said Joe Stanhope, chairman of the Regional District of Nanaimo. "Bottom line, we've got to look at what the impact is on property taxes."

Municipalities already have started putting together next year's budgets, so the timing will be tricky.

"I think over the course of debate, some people will say it's more appropriately done by a higher level of government," said Geoff Young, chairman of the Capital Regional District.

Costs are a worry for CRD politicians, where the public is already debating the merits of a plan for light-rail transit estimated to cost $1 billion.

"As with any regional district leader, I would appreciate the [option] that has the least cost for us," said Young, a Victoria city councillor.

"Transportation is key to the wellness of our communities," said View Royal Mayor Graham Hill, the CRD's representative on the foundation. "You do it wrong and you spend lots of hours idling your car in virtual parking lots on the way to and from work."

The Alberni-Clayoquot regional board is dealing with the E&N funding issue behind closed doors so Cindy Solda, acting board chairwoman, was unable to say much.

"Everybody has to still go back and talk to their communities, because no matter what, it's going to affect taxpayers," Solda said.

It's too soon to guess how the Cowichan Valley Regional District board will vote, said chairman Rob Hutchins, who noted: "I haven't heard anyone clambering for: 'Let's get rid of it.' "

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