File photo The public and stakeholders will be invited to participate in the proposed study of relocation of rail traffic off the Semiahmoo Peninsula waterfront.

City eyes BNSF to pay share of rail move

White Rock, Surrey, province await federal funds to begin year-long assessment of relocation

The City of Surrey is hoping for a spring 2018 to March 2019 timeline for a study – jointly funded by Surrey, White Rock and the federal and provincial governments – on relocating the BNSF route off the Semiahmoo Peninsula waterfront, Surrey transportation manager Jaime Boan said.

That is what the city included in its $300,000 grant application made to the federal Rail Safety Improvement Program (RSIP) on Aug. 1, he said Thursday, adding that a response is expected sometime this fall.

“Historically, projects like this are funded one-third provincially, one-third federally and one-third locally,” Boan said, adding the city is “optimistic” the federal component will be approved.

Federal transportation minister Marc Garneau encouraged Surrey to apply for the RSIP funding in a letter to Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner last December, he noted.

The split for local funding for the study, as suggested by Surrey, would call for $75,000 from White Rock to Surrey’s contribution of $225,000, Boan said.

Mayor Wayne Baldwin told Peace Arch News earlier this week that White Rock remains committed to studying the issue of relocating the route – adding that he can envision a new route travelling along Highway 99, for which the railway might shoulder “a substantial amount” of the cost.

However, the city will be watching Surrey’s progress with the federal grant before finally committing to costs for the study, Baldwin said.

“We’re letting them take the lead,” he said. “When they (get the grant) we’ll have to work out the numbers.”

The idea of relocating the shoreline BNSF route – raised by the cities of Surrey and White Rock in a joint community forum hosted by then-Surrey mayor Dianne Watts and Baldwin in 2013 – was the subject of a series of hearings before the federal Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities in Ottawa last year, held at the urging of Watts, now MP for South Surrey-White Rock.

Representatives of BNSF participated in those hearings, and have requested to be included in the proposed study, Boan said.

Speaking before council in 2014, Baldwin made what he said was “a rough guess” that the BNSF trains could be relocated off the waterfront “in five years.”

The same year, Hepner – who had earlier, as a council member, said that talk of relocation was “premature” – made it a platform priority when campaigning in Crescent Beach as the Surrey First candidate for mayor.

The scope of the provincial contribution to the study has yet to be confirmed, Baldwin said Wednesday, although a letter from then-B.C. transportation and infrastructure minister Todd Stone to Garneau in February of this year expressed provincial support for the latest initiative by Surrey and White Rock.

“The provincial government has been invited to participate all along,” Baldwin noted. “But, at this stage of the game, while they’ve said they support it, no firm numbers have been given.”

Baldwin said the terms of the study will not only include identifying a potential alternative route for BNSF’s Seattle to Vancouver traffic – “obviously, it’s going to be in Surrey” – but also an assessment of the economic case for relocation.

“We have to look at whether it makes financial sense for BNSF to move it,” Baldwin added.

“If it would make sense for them, they would pay a substantial amount of the cost,” he suggested, although he noted the final determination of how the project would be funded, taking into account costs and benefits of possible realignment options, would be left in the hands of the Canadian Transportation Agency.

Baldwin also said the study would determine whether the existing line itself, or the route would be relocated off the waterfront.

“We’d be looking at a new rail bed, and the preferred route would probably travel all the way up Highway 99 and through the tunnel,” he said.

“It all depends on the economics and what the best route would be, although (travelling along the highway) would probably present the least amount of issues – nobody wants a railway running through their backyard.”

He said he notes some support for this option south of the border.

“The Washington State Department of Transportation shows it as a preferred route from their point of view, as the shortest distance between Vancouver and Seattle – they’ve also been talking about high-speed trains.”

Boan said he sees the proposed study as “taking a fresh look at all the options” and then screening them down, through public and stakeholder consultation, to a single best option.

But even if the federal funds don’t come through, he said, he expects that Surrey and White Rock will; “continue to pursue the idea of rail relocation.”

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