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For many mid-islanders, especially those living without a car, inter-community transportation presents a challenge. Nanaimo residents like Laura Nelson and her son Dean, who travel to Duncan frequently for medical appointments, describe the trip with existing public transit as “perfectly awful” due to long wait times and slow, congested roads.
“There really is no cohesive public transportation option between communities,” says Nanaimo city councillor and Regional District of Nanaimo director Tyler Brown. “The province to date under multiple regimes really isn’t taking inter-community travel on the island very seriously.”
While everyone seems to agree that public transportation for mid-Vancouver Island residents is lacking, decision-makers don’t agree on a way forward – if they address the issue directly at all.
Here’s what you need to know about competing visions for the future of inter-city transportation for mid-Vancouver Island, and how rail fits into that picture.
The future of the railway
Vancouver Island’s old E&N railway, which connects Victoria to Courtenay and Parksville to Port Alberni, has been presented as a possible solution to Vancouver Island’s transportation gaps since it stopped operating in 2011.
After more than a decade and millions of taxpayer dollars spent on three major government-funded studies about the future of the Vancouver Island rail corridor, which is currently owned by regional districts and First Nations along its route via the Island Corridor Foundation (ICF) — no decision has been made about its future.
Meanwhile, a competing organization called Friends of Rails to Trails Vancouver Island (FORT-VI) wants to see the rail tracks torn out and replaced with a cycling and multi-use pathway. And some First Nations along the route have gone to court to ask for the lands that were taken from them to be returned.
The province’s South Island Transportation Strategy, released in September, was expected to provide some much-needed clarity on the matter, but only mentions that commuter rail for the capital region should be explored long-term. In the short-term, the strategy includes “encouraging growth of inter-regional trails,” including the E&N corridor.
Regional mayors, the ICF and FORT-VI president Alastair Craighead have criticized the strategy for failing to offer a comprehensive vision for the transportation corridor.
But for many, the Vancouver Island railway corridor debate is a distraction from the real issue.
“I think really the discussion on Vancouver Island has kind of been dumbed down to just the E&N sitting in isolation like somehow that one line is the key to our overall transportation situation,” says Eric Doherty, a Victoria-based transportation planning consultant. “When it’s just one possible way of providing inter-community transportation.”
“The E&N just seems to be this constant excuse to do nothing other than another study.”
He points to a highway bus system that could connect the whole island, including communities like Port Hardy, Tofino and Pacheedaht First Nation, which are not positioned along the rail corridor.
“That’s something that the MMIWG inquiry called for,” he says, noting the commission’s Calls for Justice “to ensure that adequate plans and funding are put into place for safe and affordable transit and transportation services and infrastructure for Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people living in remote or rural communities.”
In 2017, Greyhound announced the elimination of bus service along two routes on Vancouver Island, including service between Nanaimo and Victoria, and regional municipalities opposed it. The province’s passenger transportation board permitted the cancellation because IslandLink and Tofino Bus Service would fill some of the gaps Greyhound left behind.
Brown says the regional district has pressed for improvements to the bus service between communities. “We can do them now and we can do them a lot better within our communities and between our communities,” he says.
“I think there’s a lot of interest in rail. But even if the province — no matter who is elected — isn’t ready to take that step, a relatively inexpensive option in comparison to rail is bus lines,” he says. “And they could do that through BC Transit … within a very short period of time.”
He added that BC Transit hasn’t been funded to the levels it needs to grow ridership.
The Association Vancouver Island Coastal Communities (AVICC), which represents 53 local governments, has also pressed for both improved bus service between communities as well as rail.
“We’ve put a lot of effort into pursuing an inter-regional model that could exist between the Cowichan Valley and Nanaimo and we were hoping for guidance on that, … which we didn’t get,” says AVICC president Ian Morrison, speaking to the province’s transportation strategy, released in September.
It’s about climate, too
Lantzville resident Brian Blood says that when it comes to rail, people need to aim higher.
“That went out of business because it was already inadequate for the times. I think going back incrementally to try and get something like that going is aiming too low,” he says.
He’d like to see the corridor put back to use through a light rail system. “If you look at the per capita funding that the Lower Mainland gets for transit from the province and the federal government for things like the Skytrain,” Vancouver Island residents receive hardly anything, he says. “We’ve got 800,000 people in the E&N corridor who could use this.”
“What I would [want to] see is double-tracked light rail from the Comox Valley to Victoria, probably electrified, probably overhead. We already own the right of way, … that’s usually the huge expense.”
Traffic congestion and accidents along the Island Highway are only getting worse, Blood adds. “We need to take people out of their cars for environmental reasons, but also for safety reasons. … It just makes sense on so many levels.”
For Brown and others, it’s also the right thing to do given climate change.
“I think if you care about social equity, if you care about economic development, if you care about a lower carbon future or hopefully a carbon-free future,” transportation is the link that connects them all, says Brown.
The transportation sector is the second-largest contributor of greenhouse gas pollution in Canada, responsible for a quarter of all emissions, according to the federal government.
In December 2016, premiers from across Canada adopted the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, which sets out an approach to transportation that includes growing the number of zero-emission vehicles on Canadian roads and “supporting the shift from higher to lower-emitting types of transportation.”
Last year, the Union of British Columbia Municipalities endorsed this shift, and resolved to call on other levels of government to support improvements for inter-city, commuter bus and rail service. The AVICC passed a similar resolution last year.
Doherty and the Better Transit Alliance of Greater Victoria, of which he is a part, says that there’s a lot of talk about improved inter-city public transportation between Nanaimo and Victoria, and between Nanaimo and Port Alberni and other communities. “But the money just keeps on going to highway expansion.”
He says the key question comes down to: “Do we continue with a private automobile-dominated transportation system, or do we actually shift resources to public transit?”
“You can’t build your way out of congestion,” he adds, pointing to the recently completed $96 million McKenzie interchange project on the Trans-Canada Highway in the capital region, which he says continues to present challenges for drivers, while increasing greenhouse gas pollution.
“A hundred million dollars would be enough to build a highway bus network for the whole island,” he adds.
The Better Transit Alliance and other members of the non-partisan Climate Caucus Transportation Working Group penned an open letter to premiers and the prime minister in July calling for a “just and green recovery” that ensures “stimulus spending on transportation complies with the 2016 federal-provincial climate agreement.”
Signatories include the South Island Climate Action Network, The David Suzuki Foundation and the Council of Canadians.
When asked to summarize recent transportation investments for mid-Vancouver Island, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure said that communications are limited to health and safety during the election period, and to refer to the province’s database of transportation projects. The database does not show any public transportation improvements.
According to its news releases, construction has continued this year along three Vancouver Island highways this year near Parksville, Saanich and Langford alongside investments to cycling and pedestrian infrastructure in Nanaimo, Comox Valley, North Cowichan and others.
Editor’s Note, Oct. 29, 2020: This story has been updated to reflect the 2020 B.C. provincial election results.
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