The debate about taxing Island property owners to pay for passenger rail service will likely 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 rail bed repairs materialized last year, but that work won't start without the $3.2 million for structural repairs to 48 bridges and trestles.
Representatives of the Island Corridor Foundation, which owns the track, has been lobbying regional boards for funding since August. This week, the ICF went public with its appeal for support. Board members of the Nanaimo, Cowichan, Capital, Courtenay and Alberni-Clayaquot regional districts have instructed theirstaff members to work together on a report listing options to implement a property tax 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, ICF chief operating officer.
A year ago, the rail bed repairs appeared ready to start this spring. Then an ICF study came out, saying bridge and trestle repairs are needed.
For the average property owner, it would mean a tax increase of less than $2 a year, for five years.
The report is expected to list options by examining such factors as population, track mileage and amount of benefit each municipality would derive from rail service.
Regional boards will vote once the reports are released.
"I think there's going to be lively debate, no question about it," said Joe Stanhope, Regional District of Nanaimo chairman. "Bottom line, we've got to look at what the impact is on property taxes."
Municipalities have started putting together 2012 budgets, so timing is tricky.
"I think over the course of debate some people will say it's more appropriately done by a higher level of governments," said Geoff Young, Capital Regional District board chairman.
Costs are a worry for CRD politicians, where the public is debating light-rail transit estimated to cost $1 billion.
One option is to make those municipalities that benefit the most pay more and, "as with any regional district leader, I would appreciate the one that has the least cost for us," said Young, a Victoria city councillor.
"Transportation is key to the wellness of our communities," said Graham Hill, Capital Regional District ICF representative. "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 E&N funding issue is still on the Alberni-Clayoquot regional board's closed-door agenda, so Cindy Solda, acting board chairwoman was unable to say much. But she expects healthy debate on the subject.
"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.
"There's always a variety of opinions on any topic," said CVRD board chairman Rob Hutchins. "I can tell you from the hundreds of citizens I've been involved with in local politics, I haven't heard anyone clambering for 'let's get rid of it.'"
Comox Valley regional board chairman Edwin Grieve could not be reached.
The funding options report is expected out in late October or early November.
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