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Commuter rail makes sense for Halifax

Can Halifax afford not to embrace commuter rail?

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Ryan Van Horne is a Halifax journalist, playwright and documentary film director. His work has appeared in magazines and newspapers from coast to coast and on his blog at ryanvanhorne.com. Follow him on Twitter at @RyanVanHorne.

Ryan Van Horne is a Halifax journalist, playwright and documentary film director. His work has appeared in magazines and newspapers from coast to coast and on his blog at ryanvanhorne.com. Follow him on Twitter at @RyanVanHorne.

Sit in a traffic jam along the Bedford Highway or wait in the long queue where Highway 102 enters Halifax at Bayers Road and you know that there has to be a better way to move lots of people from the suburbs to downtown and back.

Bedford Councillor Tim Outhit is the latest in a long line of politicians from Halifax’s outlying communities to call for commuter rail. “Instead of building wider roads, we should be using the assets that we have,” he says.

It’s ironclad logic, and despite the idea working elsewhere, it always been a nonstarter in Halifax because decision makers say it’s too costly. When you consider the cost of fuel, the wear on vehicles idling in traffic jams, and the cost of parking, I don’t buy that argument. But Halifax has bought it for years.

Cars sit in traffic, exhaust spewing from the tailpipes as drivers gnash their teeth and wonder if they’ll be on time. If this is progress in the 21st century, then I think some folks need to take another look at the dictionary. The main stumbling block was the cost of renting or getting access to the tracks, which CN owns. That was the conclusion of a study HRM considered (and shelved) last year.

But earlier this summer, when Via Rail approached the city for help promoting the regional passenger rail service between Moncton and Halifax, the city asked Via Rail what it thought about last year’s commuter rail study.

Outhit says Via looked at it and although Via representatives thought there were a few gaps, their response was promising. “They said: ‘If you folks want to really get serious on commuter rail, we think we could partner with you on this at a significantly, and that was their term, significantly, lower costs for both start-up and operation than the assumptions that were made in previous rail studies.”

That addressed the biggest wildcard in the study from last year, the cost of track access (estimated at 36 per cent of the total budget). That “expression of interest” as Outhit called it, went before a transportation committee that he chairs and recommended Council pursue it. In early August, Council voted unanimously to give staff permission to begin negotiations with Via Rail.

Outhit says those negotiations could be completed “in as little as a year.” If they’re successful, HRM will have to build park and ride lots along the route that will go between the Via station downtown and Windsor Junction.

Outhit says the city will also synch the service with Halifax Transit bus routes because commuter rail is not meant to replace bus routes. Rather, it will augment the public transit system. The plan is to boost ridership and reduce car traffic on suburban roads and on main arteries in and out of Halifax.

As with Halifax Transit buses and ferries, government will subsidize 70 per cent of the cost of commuter rail. This is money well spent, much wiser than widening existing roads or building new ones. “Many people believe that rail is long overdue, but not at any price,” Outhit says. “There is incredible public support for this.”

Commuter rail will also help downtown business, which are concerned about a rising commercial vacancy rate that is nudging up around the 15 per cent level. Commuter rail will help create the growth and density the city is looking for downtown. From a residents’ standpoint, that means growing the tax base, something that always occurs when you build rail lines or subway lines in cities. “It pays for itself very quickly,” Outhit says.

  • Mark

    There are many instances where the “business case” for a public expenditure isn’t the proper analysis to employ. Public utilities – like Nova Scotia Power used to be – are there to serve a public need, not garner profits or even break-even if the broader social good is realized. Commuter Rail is one of those cases: it would bring enormous benefits to the city and region. It makes little sense for urbanites to continue to clog limited street space while spewing noxious fumes. Ottawa’s commuter rail is a thing of beauty; there are many other examples of a successful implementation of this kind of passenger transport. If only we had sufficient political will to move it ahead. And one wonders just how much easier access to CN’s tracks might have been were it not for the Federal Government’s push to privatize the company in the mid-1990s.

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