OPINION: Passenger rail in the corridor a fantasy

What do Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and renewed passenger rail service in the Sea to Sky Corridor have in common? The quick answer is they are all feel-good fables.

At its recent annual convention, Union of B.C. Municipalities delegates encouraged the provincial government to partner with VIA Rail to fund and conduct a feasibility study for a passenger rail service between North Vancouver and Prince George. VIA Rail is a Crown corporation subsidized by Transport Canada and mandated to offer intercity passenger rail access across the country. It is also a money-losing venture with a massive $348.3 million operating deficit last year, according to the Via Rail 2017 Annual Report. In an effort to stem the flow of red ink, the company has cut back or eliminated routes with chronically low ridership.

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Another option is hooking up the line through the corridor with TransLink's West Coast Express service. But that extension will come with a hefty price tag, potentially running into billions of dollars, especially if we're talking about high-speed trains. And let's not forget, public transit is heavily subsidized in this province. User fees in Metro Vancouver cover just over half of the operating costs. Fuel and property taxes are the other major sources of revenue for TransLink.

One factor weighing against the passenger rail scenario in the foreseeable future is the provincial government's $795 million expenditure on the Sea to Sky Highway upgrade. BC Transit's Sea to Sky Transit Future Plan envisions eight buses travelling on the highway for six weekdays and four weekend round trips between Whistler, Squamish, and Vancouver.  

The District of Squamish, in conjunction with the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, is calling for a vehicle fuel tax in the corridor to help pay for regional transit. Once the rubber hits the road, how many municipal officials will be ready to levy an additional fuel surtax on the already inflated tab at the pumps to subsidize the re-establishment of passenger rail in the corridor? The quick answer to that put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is challenge is it will happen when hell freezes over. 

One of the reasons passenger rail was mothballed in 2002 was low ridership. Two years ago, during the B.C. Liberal's term in office, Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Todd Stone insisted the provincial government was not reinstating passenger rail service through Squamish because market demand for the route was marginal. And a recent email inquiry netted the following response from the powers-that-be in Victoria: "At this time, passenger rail service in the Sea-to-Sky Corridor is not being considered by the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure. The ministry continues to work on improving services, and is dedicated to regional transit service along this important corridor."

Former Squamish mayor Patricia Heintzman believes a commuter rail service, if it is ever viable, likely won't get the green light for 10 or more years. She said in an email exchange that, "the whole vernacular of the automobile will have changed and you may be able to simply build your rail line (or automated vehicle lane) on one of the highway lanes and save a ton of money."

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