Plans for commuter rail aimed at improving transportation in Halifax area derailed

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Plans for commuter rail derailed in Halifax
WATCH: After an in-camera session at regional council Tuesday night, councillors unanimously voted to no longer pursue commuter rail service. Alicia Draus reports – Jun 19, 2019

Each day the Bedford Highway sees over 20,000 vehicles pass through. The 11.5km stretch of road between Windsor Street and Highway 102 is a main transportation corridor and can easily get congested during rush hour.

The municipality’s Integrated Mobility Plan aims to improve transportation in the region, and the Bedford Highway is among the roads being looked to be transformed into a ‘Transit Priority Corridor.’

Commuter rail has often been touted as one way to ease traffic congestion in the area.

READ MORE: Ridership dropped significantly on Montreal’s commuter trains in 2018

“It was the best option,” said Distrcit 16 Councillor Tim Outhit, who’s distrcit includes Bedford.

“Rail was probably the one that was least dependent on accidents, traffic and weather.”

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But now that option is off the table. After an in-camera discussion, regional council unanimously voted to pass a motion to direct staff to no longer pursue commuter rail service.

Outhit says it comes down to the municipality not being able to reach acceptable terms with CN Rail.

READ MORE: How feasible is extending Montreal’s light rail project?

“CN has control of the tracks,” he said.

“We just could not be guaranteed scheduling and access rights that would make commuter traffic reliable.”

Part of the blame was also pointed to a recent announcement from the Federal Government, which would be investing in transportation upgrades at the Port of Halifax. The upgrades would allow for more port container traffic to be placed on rail.

“That chewed up the capacity a bit as well,” said Outhit.

READ MORE: Ottawa announces $47.5M in funding for upgrades to Port of Halifax and Windsor Street Exchange

For Scott Edgar with It’s More Than Buses, the decision does not come as a surprise. He points to a feasibility study released it 2015 that outlined the costs. The study estimated upfront costs would range from $36 to $62 million with an annual net operating cost of $8 million a year.

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“Those numbers made it clear that commuter rail was never going to be the best way for HRM to get the most out of its transit dollars,” said Edgar.

He says now that the idea is officially off the table Edgar hopes the municipality moves forward with rapid bus transit in that corridor.

“We think that commuters in Bedford and beyond in Sackville absolutely need some form of rapid transit into downtown,” he said.

“HRM can be transit city, the only key is that we need to make transit attractive enough for people and that means transit that doesn’t get stuck in traffic transit.”

READ MORE: Halifax Transit riders are one step closer to free WiFi

Outhit says the municipality will now fast-track investigations to improve the Bedford Highway and expand proposed Bus Rapid Transit. He says they will also reconsider the feasibility of a ferry service.

“Ferries from Halifax to Dartmouth are obviously quite reliable, but going out to the basin it can be a longer and rougher trip and you do have to worry about the narrows and you do have to worry about the fog,” said Outhit.

Outhit also points out that while council has voted to stop pursuing commuter rail, both commuter rail and light rail are not off the table indefinitely and could still be considered by future councils as the municipality grows, and if CN has surplus track capacity in the future.

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