Vancouver Island commits to rail review, not sure of exactly what or how

Local government endorses close look at Island Corridor Foundation while

The future of Vancouver Island rail is the subject of a review by the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities.

Vancouver Island communities want a review of the way Vancouver Island’s rail line is financed and managed.

But who will do it, how it will be done and who is going to pay for it remains very much up in the air.

Delegates to the annual Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities conference in Nanaimo voted Sunday to “work with impacted local governments and the ICF board to conduct a financial and governance review of the Island Corridor Foundation.”

The vote came despite the fact the AVICC executive told its members it does not have the ability to conduct such a review in-house and that it may come with a cost.

The ICF is the partnership of regional districts and First Nations that owns the rail corridor. It has been criticized for its transparency, spending, fee policies and progress in restarting passenger rail.

ICF co-chair Dr. Judith Sayers said the ICF and AVICC has always had a very positive relationship and she expects that to continue.

“We’re pleased to meet with the AVICC any time,” she said. “Our audits are public, they are on our website. I’m not sure exactly what more they are looking for.”

That’s understandable because the AVICC isn’t sure itself.

AVICC president and Comox Councillor Barbara Price said the organization will likely reach out to each member community to determine exactly what they want the review to achieve. Once that information is compiled, a plan will be drafted, reviewed and approved.

Then someone will likely have to be hired to do the actual work.

“It will definitely have to be a contractor to do this work,” Price said. “We will certainly be working with communities to build a terms of reference before we start. We will have to find a way to fund it.”

Capital Regional District Director Denise Blackwell, who presented the motion, said she can live with the process if that’s what it takes to get a better look at what the ICF is doing and why.

“I think that’s fair,” Blackwell said. “I am glad that there are people recognizing that there are issues with the management.”

Meanwhile, while its management was being scrutinized, the future of rail service itself got the support of a majority of municipal politicians.

On Saturday morning, AVICC delegates voted in a show of hands by an approximately two to one margin to urge the federal government to release the $7.5 million it has promised to upgrade the tracks.

While the vote is largely symbolic, it did send the message that a majority of communities still endorse the idea of a Vancouver Island rail system, despite recent concerns expressed by the CRD and the Regional District of Nanaimo.

Victoria’s Ben Isitt said there is no advanced country in the world without a high-quality rail system and forward-thinking communities need to embrace rail as a better economic and ecological option for the future.

“It’s been an incredible battle. If we walk away now, everything will fail,” Courtenay Mayor Larry Jangula said.

A handful of directors said any questions that exist about ICF management must be kept separate from the issue of rail service.

“The management is a separate question,” Isitt said.

RDN director Julian Fell said the RDN’s recent decision to pull a promised $950,000 grant rendered the grant release motion — introduced by Port Alberni — moot. He pointed to a sold-out excursion train that toured Nanaimo Friday.

“That may be the last passenger train we see on Vancouver Island,” he said.

Sayers said she is confident the ICF can either work things out with the RDN to get the funding reinstated, or find other funding sources.

“I don’t know where it will go, but it’s a fairly recent announcement and as a board, we haven’t talked about it, but there are alternatives.”

The heritage train rides, part of the 130th anniversary of rail on Vancouver Island, showcased plans for a new train service catering to cruise ships.

Frank Butzelaar, CEO of Southern Railway of Vancouver Island, which operates the rail line, said feasibility studies have been done on making the excursion train a permanent attraction. He anticipated a six-month stakeholder engagement process, culminating in a business plan.

Butzelaar said the plan will be used to market the train to the cruise ship industry and can cater to more than just ship customers, too.

“We concluded when we did the feasibility study that we have a unique opportunity here on Vancouver Island, with this rail corridor, to not only do cruise ship tours, but actually, we have an opportunity to do special event tours as well,” said Butzelaar.

Blackwell said the train ride was the type of thing she has questions about: what did it cost and was it money well spent? Ultimately, she hopes the conversation can help determine whether rail has a future, and what that future is.

“It will proceed logically from here. How long has it been since we’ve seen a train running down the rails?”

 

Communication breakdown?

In an attempt to improve the exchange of information, the Island Corridor Foundation is inviting Island municipalities to join a local government liaison committee.

“The committee stems from changes to legislation/court proceedings that have compromised the report back at the local government level, impacting clear and transparent communication,” the ICF said in a media release. “Elected officials are perceived to be in conflict when ICF or matters relating to the corridor are addressed at their respective council tables.”

In recent months, ICF board members have excused themselves from ICF presentations, stating a conflict and left the room.

Both Nanaimo and Lanztville have declined the invitation.

Lantzville councillor  Dot Neary said she couldn’t appoint any member of council to a committee that was vaguely defined.

“I fail to really grasp what the purpose of this really is and what the utility of this is … I am reluctant to support any committee that really doesn’t seem clear to people,” Neary said.

Nanaimo Councillor Bill Bestwick said he is not in favour of sending a representative to listen to Island Corridor Foundation “propaganda” and they already have a board representative in the mayor.

— with files from Black Press

Follow me on Twitter @JohnMcKinleyBP

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