Passenger rail plan loses $1M commitment from Nanaimo regional district

RDN chair Bill Veenhof says the RDN has "lost confidence that the day-to-day operations of the ICF reflect the interests of the RDN"

Southern Rail employees manoeuvre the Island Explorer excursion train along the tracks at rail yard on the Nanaimo waterfront. Tuesday. The 1952 locomotive and four heritage coaches arrived earlier that morning in anticipation of an April 8 event celebrating the 130th anniversary of Island rail.

The plan to re-start passenger rail service on Vancouver Island was dealt a serious blow Wednesday morning when the Regional District of Nanaimo announced it is withdrawing its commitment to provide almost $1 million to the project.

RDN board chair Bill Veenhof said the decision to pull the funding was unanimous and was announced after an in-camera meeting Tuesday night.

“We have terminated the contribution agreement with the Island Corridor Foundationn (ICF),” Veenhof told The NEWS on Wednesday morning. “After five years of waiting for this project to move forward, the board has grown tired of delays and has lost confidence that the day-to-day operations of the ICF reflect the interests of the RDN.”

The RDN had committed $945,000 to the re-start of passenger rail service on the Island. Veenhof said the ICF was given 60-day notice of this termination on Wednesday morning.

Veenhof also said the board passed a motion saying the the RDN board “does not support the retention or continuation of Granneke Management by the ICF board.”

Former Liberal MLA Graham Bruce was hired to be the ICF’s executive director in June of 2009. Granneke is Bruce’s consulting business.

The ICF issued a statement at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday.

“The Island Corridor Foundation (ICF) is in receipt of the letter from the Regional District of Nanaimo (RDN) regarding the termination of the regional district grant agreement,” read the statement. “The ICF will not provide comments until such time as the board has met to discuss this matter.”

At 9:45 a.m. Wednesday, Veenhof sent The NEWS what he called “speaking notes” on the issue. They included:

“When the board initially voted to support this project, the scheduling plan was significantly different than what it is today and at this time it does not appear that the project will move forward in the foreseeable future.     As elected officials and stewards of our constituents’ tax dollars, the board feels that it is not good management of taxpayer funds to hold $945,000 for a project that will not move forward in the foreseeable future. The board feels that alternate uses for the corridor should be explored. The vote to provide notice of termination of the Contribution Agreement was passed unanimously. The Board feels that it is important to protect the Island Corridor land.”

The ICF, a non-profit organization formed in 2003 to manage the railway, has been awaiting $7.5 million in federal government funding to restore passenger train service to Vancouver Island. Passenger service was discontinued in 2011 due to unsafe track conditions.

Earlier this year, the Snaw-Naw-As First Nation of Nanoose Bay initiated a civil lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court against the ICF and the Attorney General of Canada over the rail line.

The lawsuit asks for the return of Snaw-Naw-As land that was taken in the last century to build the railway, which runs through the reserve north of Nanaimo.

Laste last year, Southern Railway of Vancouver Island (SVI) officials said passenger train service could return to Vancouver Island as early as 2016.

“Maybe by the end of 2016, but by early 2017 in time for the tourist season we expect passenger operations to resume,” SVI director of community relations J. Singh Biln told The NEWS.

SVI is the operator of the E&N Railway, owned by the ICF.

Senior governments and five regional districts along the E&N line — including the RDN — had committed $20.9 million to the project.

While the RDN committed almost $1 million last year to help revive passenger rail service, directors representing Coombs/Errington, Bowser, Nanoose Bay, Parksville and Qualicum Beach voted against it but the motion passed on the strength of the RDN board’s Nanaimo contingent.

Parksville Mayor Marc Lefebvre, who has consistently voiced concern that $20.9 million won’t be enough to complete the repairs, was asked in that story last year what he thought of the comments from Southern Rail.

“I have no comment,” said Lefebvre. “I’ve heard that before, I’ve heard a lot of dates over time.”

Joe Stanhope, who represents French Creek on the RDN, said he was surprised by Souther Rail’s optimism about the project.

“I’m surprised knowing the infrastructure deficit is where it is that they are that optimistic,” Stanhope told The NEWS.

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