Debris from one of several mudslides that swept across BNSF tracks late last month, in a photograph taken on Jan. 30. (Eric Seiz photo)

Province denies $300K ask for rail-route study

Surrey ‘pursuing’ federal funds for joint investigation, with White Rock, of relocation options

White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin will be writing to B.C.’s transport minister to urge reconsideration of a decision not to contribute funds for a joint study looking at relocating the BNSF route off the waterfront.

In a Jan. 24 letter sent to both Baldwin and Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, Claire Trevena said “at this time, the ministry is unable to provide funding” for the study.

Surrey had been asking, on behalf of both cities, for a $300,000 provincial contribution to the estimated $900,000 for the study. White Rock is to contribute $75,000 and Surrey, $225,000, with a further $300,000 requested from the federal government.

On Monday night Baldwin sought, and gained, council approval to draft a letter in response, “in light of the recent slides on the track.”

Mudslides on Jan. 29 and the early morning of Jan 30, following heavy rainfall, prompted BNSF to impose temporary track closures which affected the Bellingham to Vancouver passenger service, as well as freight service.

Baldwin said there had been a total of six separate mudslides on the track between White Rock and Crescent Beach in that period.

“It’s $300,000 – it’s not a lot of money to the province,” he told Peace Arch News following the meeting. “This is a potential loss-of-life situation.”

Surrey transportation manager Jaime Boan said he thinks his city will likely “have further dialogue with the provincial government” on the decision, acknowledging that it will delay the spring 2018 to March 2019 timeline originally hoped for.

“We’re obviously disappointed,” he said. “We have had response in the past that indicated support from the province.”

In her letter, Trevena said that while she recognized the importance of improving rail safety to both cities, “the BNSF is a federally-regulated railway that falls under the safety oversight of Transport Canada, and consideration of the railway safety impacts of relocating the corridor resides with Transport Canada.”

Boan said that while the point is understood, he feels that issues about the route’s safety could not only affect goods movement, impacting the provincial economy, but also pose “an environmental and community safety risk that fits within the provincial mandate.”

He said the city will be “actively pursuing” the federal component of the funding – applied for last August and not yet confirmed, in spite of encouragement to apply from federal transportation Minister Marc Garneau – over the next few months.

Boan noted that this year’s slides are far from isolated incidents.

“There have been many mudslides on the tracks over the years,” he said.

“From the BNSF perspective, they feel they are able to manage the risk. From the city side, it is a concern.”

The idea of relocating the shoreline route was raised by the cities in a joint community forum hosted by then-Surrey mayor Dianne Watts and Baldwin in 2013.

It was also the subject of a series of hearings before the federal Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities in Ottawa in 2016, urged by Watts, who served as MP for South Surrey-White Rock before resigning in 2017 for her failed bid to become BC Liberal leader.

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