Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for February 27th, 2008

The Mayor Of Chilliwack on Rail for the Valley

with 10 comments

I was going to do something else today, but Google’s alert drew my attention to a long piece in the Chilliwack Times. When you are Mayor, you not only get centre stage at events you attend, you get lots of media space to explain your position on those you don’t attend.

Now it is unusual for a Mayor to have such a coherent and well argued case, but it does have a few holes. I will let you read it as it stands – and I suggest you do that first – and then I intend to point them out.

the most recent census data (2001)

The most recent census was in 2006. I know because I worked on it. And data from that is becoming available. I suspect that things may have changed a bit int he intervening period, but in terms of journeys to work (the only ones that the census looks at) we can only choose from what is available to choose. Since Chilliwack has inadequate transit it is no surprise that most people drive. The Mayor goes on to make some suppositions: he may or may not be right, but I really wonder why he could not get real data.

The “Rail to the Valley” folks admit in their documents that an upgrade of the old Interurban Line would cost in excess of $1 billion.

Note that this is not a direct quote and no source is cited. It may be that you could spend a $1bn on upgrades, but I do not accept that is necessarily the  cost. And the Mayor does not look at any of the options in detail. One of the great advantages of using existing tracks is that you can proceed in a gradual way, and you can also avoid large capital costs. Indeed, most of the proposals I have seen have been of this kind. You could get a diesel railcar on lease, and a few temporary platforms, sell tickets on board, and run in between the freight trains. Not ideal by any means, but very cheap indeed. A whole order of magnitude or two below the Mayor’s carefully chosen figure.

It does not calculate the cost of buying the freight off of the right of way which is currently near capacity from Abbotsford to the west. It also does not include the cost of the disruption to the hundreds of businesses, who have located on, and use, the rail line to move freight.

It does not include these costs because they are not necessary. Freight on rail is not that time sensitive – and does not have to move at periods of peak passenger demand. No existing freight customers need to be inconvenienced at all. And I somehow doubt that the SRY has “hundreds” of customers – though I bet they wish they did. My casual acquaintance with less than train load freight in this area is that it has been declining steadily – but I will concede I may be misled. But the whole right of way and freight argument is a red herring – and a scare tactic and unworthy of a Mayor.

 As noble as the idea is to provide rail transit from Chilliwack to Vancouver using the old Interurban line, it is clear that this meets the least of our needs. In addition, while cheaper than “SkyTrain,” we would still be spending hundreds of millions to inadequately serve a very few people.

“Noble” is just being sarky! No one suggests it would solve every need, and of course you need to be looking at buses where there are no tracks – which is most places.

 We have a very limited service in our community and little access to additional provincial transit funding.

But the Mayor is disingenuous when he asserts that it is lack of provincial funding that is hobbling local transit service.  BC Transit views its services as a partnership. And many local municipalities, while they do not like raising property tax to pay for their share, have done so and now have better service than Chilliwack does as a result. As long as there is an inadequate network, ridership will be low. You need to get to the point where transit is a viable alternative for enough people. The Mayor must explain why this has not been his priority up to now. It seems to me he has preferred to keep his property taxes down. Which is fine if that is what his electors want – that’s democracy for you – but don’t blame the province for your lack of enthusiasm for transit spending.

He then goes on to trot out the usual guff about lack of demand and population. Which is typically short sighted. And the FVRD is as  much a creature of the Mayors as the MVRD – so citing one of its reports at length as though it were an independent source is casuistry. In future, the valley is going to have to reduce its reliance on cars. Sooner or later, trains will have to be part of the mix. If people have more choice, they can make more intelligent decisions – not just about travel today but location of home, school and work for future travel. The real agenda for this Mayor is that he likes the isolation of Chilliwack from the rest of the Valley. That is why he talks so much about the lack of travel from his community to Vancouver. But that is not the market for Rail for the Valley. And I think he knows that, but he also knows the  audience he is playing too – and he has played to them successfully for a long time.

I wasn’t at the meeting either. But I suspect that the reason people booed is because he did not come to defend his views and subject them to argument. Why should he when the Aspers will give him so much space?

Written by Stephen Rees

February 27, 2008 at 9:51 am