Commuter train became less viable when new bridge was built without rail: Horgan

The viability of a commuter train on the E&N Rail line diminished greatly when a former Victoria council decided not to include a rail crossing on the new Johnson Street Bridge, Premier John Horgan said Friday.

The decision by the City of Victoria to not continue the rail track across the Johnson Street Bridge into downtown meant trains would have to stop in Vic West, and downtown-bound riders would have to transfer to a bus.

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“If we’re going to get the travelling public out of their cars and into public transit, we need to reduce the number of times they have to make transfers,” Horgan said.

He said a rapid-bus system running from Westhills in Langford into downtown Victoria could be a better bet.

“A rapid-bus system would be quick. It would allow people to not stop at the terminal of the tracks, which is in Esquimalt or bordering Vic West/Esquimalt. It would allow them to go over the Johnson Street Bridge and get to Blanshard Street and then go in opposite directions,” Horgan said.

“So as a transportation planning tool, rapid-bus is better to integrate with the existing system.”

Victoria councillors decided before the borrowing referendum for the new bridge not to include a rail crossing (estimated at $12 million) because they could not find funding partners to contribute to what they considered a regional amenity.

“Had the council of the day had a better relationship with the provincial government of the day, we might have seen a different outcome,” said Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, who was not on council at the time.

Helps noted that the federal government contributed $37.5 million to the project, but there was no provincial funding for the bridge replacement.

“The council of the day made the decision they did based on the facts in front of them, including, of course, costs,” she said.

Helps said she’s not sold on the idea of commuter rail and supports the idea of exploring a rapid-bus system. “It’s cheaper. It’s more flexible. It can move as many people. So I think the premier’s idea of using that corridor for buses is a really good one, in addition to using Douglas Street for buses,” she said.

Horgan first floated the idea of using the corridor for something other than rail at a Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce luncheon this past week, surprising many in the audience, including local politicians who thought rail was still a consideration.

Developer Ken Mariash, of Focus Equities, who favours running light rail on the corridor and has invested heavily in studying the idea, said the corridor is too narrow for buses, and the costs of repurposing the rail bed for bus transit would be too high.

Horgan, long a proponent of commuter rail, said Friday that the prospect of rail has been studied to death, and study after study says it would be difficult.

He said it’s time to get on with moving people.

“When we have a congestion crisis that gets worse every day and as we bring more people to the West Shore, we’re going to need to move them around, and I believe using the corridor to move people is the objective that we need to focus on, and not the type of technology,” he said.

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