E&N rail line hindering development, Esquimalt chief says

For Andy Thomas, provincial funding for a section of the E&N Rail Trail that skirts the heart of the Esquimalt Nation is good news.

But while the Esquimalt chief was supportive of the cycling infrastructure, he said the rail line itself — devoid of trains for five years — is posing an obstacle to development.

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“I’ve always said just tear up the tracks and give us our land back,” he said. “It cuts our reserve in three pieces with the railway and Admirals Road, you know. It makes our land harder to be able to develop.”

Transportation Minister Todd Stone announced Wednesday that seven Vancouver Island projects would share $2.7 million in Bike B.C. grants. About $900,000 will go toward Victoria’s two-way protected bicycle facility on Pandora Avenue and $450,000 will go toward Saanich’s Lansdowne bike lanes.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps was pleased with the grant for the protected bike lane on Pandora Avenue. “That $900,000 for a separate bike lane on Pandora means we can do more Biketoria more quickly, because we can take close to a million bucks from Pandora and then move it forward to another project,” she said.

The largest share of the funding, $1 million, supports a one-kilometre section of the E&N Rail Trail between Hallowell Road and Maplebank Road. The cycling and pedestrian trail is being built primarily within the rail corridor and will stretch from Langford to Victoria. A fence separates the trail from the rail line. About 10 kilometres of the planned 17-kilometre trail have been built.

Instead of cutting through the heart of the Esquimalt First Nation, the trail diverts up to Admirals Road — a request the community made in 2010.

“Our community didn’t want anything to do with it, they said we’re not going to have any privacy, so it’s about trying to find that balance,” Thomas said.

That balance has been found, he said. But the tracks remain a problem.

The Esquimalt Nation is hoping to encourage development by building a new road connecting its territory with Hallowell Road. Currently, the only legal access is Thomas Road, which will close when Admirals Road is widened.

The rail line is owned by the Island Corridor Foundation, which hopes to restore passenger rail service on the Island. It was suspended in 2011 amid concerns about track safety.

But even as a stalled project, the railway is adding costs to the Esquimalt Nation’s plans — $500,000 by Thomas’s estimate.

“The big problem I see is being able to cross the railway tracks, because they want us to build a controlled railway crossing with lights, gates and everything else,” he said. “I said, ‘For what?’ There hasn’t been a train running for five years.”

Thomas said he will watch the Nanoose Bay First Nation’s claim against the Island Corridor Foundation closely. The Snaw-Naw-As filed a B.C. Supreme Court claim against the Island Corridor Foundation and the Attorney General in December. It’s asking for the return of land that was taken as part of the controversial E&N land grants in the last century. If successful, it could create a fatal gap in the 289-kilometre corridor between Victoria and Courtenay.

“I think we’re tempted to take a look at that, too,” Thomas said.

Graham Bruce, CEO of the Island Corridor Foundation, said even though trains aren’t running yet, it doesn’t mean they won’t in the future. “Let’s put it in historical context. You’ve got a 130-year-old, $360-million asset that is going to, in time — whether tomorrow or 10 years from now — be an important aspect of transportation connecting communities,” he said. “Nobody said it would be easy and nobody said it would be quick.”

But the Island Corridor Foundation requires community support before it can access provincial and federal funding to tender the project. The Snaw-Naw-As lawsuit has stalled that.

“Respectfully, the federal and provincial agencies won’t proceed until those issues are resolved,” Bruce said.

Stone said $7.5 million in provincial funding is ready for the project — if the foundation can demonstrate community consensus and adequate safety standards.

“Unfortunately for proponents of the project, the consensus that may have once been there at the local level — there’s questions as to whether that consensus is still there,” Stone said.

“If it doesn’t end up panning out at the end of the day, I want the people of Vancouver Island to know the $7.5 million we’ve allocated will remain as a potential investment to preserve the corridor for future generations. If that means cycling and pedestrian use in the interim and perhaps resumption of rail in the future, that’s good with us.”

asmart@timescolonist.com

— With a file from Bill Cleverley

Dollars for cycling

Transportation Minister Todd Stone announced $2.7 million in Bike B.C. grants for Vancouver Island projects:

• Capital Regional District — E&N Rail Trail, Maplebank Road to Hallowell Road ($1 million)

• Victoria — Pandora two-way protected bicycle facility ($890,492)

• Saanich — Lansdowne bike lanes ($450,000)

• Langford — Dunford Avenue separated bike lanes ($203,050)

• Nanaimo — Buttertubs Drive multi-use path ($64,025)

• Port Alberni — Port Alberni bike route improvements ($50,875)

• Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District — Cherry Creek trail ($38,549)

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