Mayor remains mum on latest rail system study

Mayor remains mum on latest rail system study

By Tyler Olsen, The Times September 24, 2010

Fraser Valley rail activist John Vissers hopes an in-depth report that bills the capital costs of a rail connection between Chilliwack and Surrey at $500 million will help convince city council to support a Fraser Valley passenger rail system.

The report, which was released Monday and commissioned by Rail for the Valley, says that a half-billion dollars of upgrades and vehicles would allow passengers to make a 90-minute rail trip between Chilliwack and the Scott Road Skytrain station in Surrey. For $100 million more, that line could be electrified.

Vissers, a spokesperson with Rail for the Valley, said the plan “is very good news.”

Factor in carbon offsets and the ability for people to get from community to community without purchasing a car and gas, and Vissers said “an electrified community rail system would actually save us money and it would help the economy.”

Vissers hoped that the report would help convince Chilliwack council and mayor Sharon Gaetz to throw their support behind a valleywide rail task force that has representatives from most other Fraser Valley municipalities.

“I like Sharon,” said Vissers, “but she’s just kind of waffling on this.”

Gaetz, however, declined to comment on the report. City hall spokesperson Starlee Renton said “her position is [that] she’s still waiting for the province’s report to come out.”

Coun. Diane Janzen was willing to talk about trains.

“I think it’s very good that they put some of the capital costs down,” said Janzen. However, she said that it is difficult to determine the feasibility of rail without knowing the proposed system’s operating costs, which are not projected in the report.

Janzen noted that public transportation is generally heavily subsidized by governments, which are currently feeling the fiscal pinch. She would also like to see a breakdown of the numbers and characteristics of the prospective users.

But she said the report is another piece of valuable information that can only aid in the decision making process. Janzen added: “One of the things about the transportation issue is that it’s so mammoth in size in terms of what it can do for people; it’s so important. But it’s also such a huge public investment that it has to be done very carefully. It’s one of those things where you can’t un-ring the bell.”

Vissers, for his part, said the report is an important “first step” and acknowledged that more research needs to be done before any money is spent on track upgrades.

But he is adamant that rail is the way to go.

The provincial government continues to sit on a transportation study that cost $400,000. Vissers–who sat on a committee convened by the study–said he has heard that the study may recommend “one or two buses” over the next 10 years. Needless to say, he doesn’t like the sound of that.

Council recently passed a motion that asks the Ministry of Transportation to release the report.

“The city of Chilliwack is extremely interested in that document,” said Janzen. The city’s request follows a similar motion by the Fraser Valley Regional District. Vissers too would like to see the report, such as it is.

“We’re really disappointed that the provincial government has spent $400,000 on a private consulting firm to do a study on the Fraser Valley and we haven’t heard anything about it,” said Vissers.

Ministry of Transportation spokesperson Jeff Knight told the Times that the report “is supposed to be ready sometime this fall.”

Asked what the hold up was, Knight would only say (twice) that “it’s very close.”

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