Smiths Falls residents hoping to enjoy commuter rail service into Ottawa this year will have to wait a while longer as Moose, the private company behind the proposal for a 400 kilometre interprovincial route, battles a federal government that seems uninterested in working with the project.
As Canada plans its 150th anniversary, celebrating a history in which railroads have played a key role, Moose director general Joseph Potvin is scratching his head over why his company’s vision to create frequent train access across a wide expanse of the national capital region is tied up in legal proceedings that have delayed the planned 2017 launch.
“To use a metaphor, it’s like there’s a hockey game underway, there’s some teeth on the ice, and the referee is sitting on the bench reading the hockey manual about high sticking,” Potvin says. “There’s a section of track that the city of Ottawa took out that is protected under federal laws and regulations, so we took that to court. It should have taken 90 days to turn around but it’s been going on for the better part of a year.”
Potvin says the Canadian Transportation Agency, the body tasked with enforcing railway regulations, is within sight of the one kilometre of track that was removed, but did nothing to stop what he calls a “serious violation of federal law.” With Ottawa constructing a permanent obstruction to the former rail line, the only way to get the project back on track is constructing a bypass that engineers estimate could cost upwards of $25 million. Potvin calls that single kilometre of track the most important in the whole network, as it is the only connection between Ottawa and Gatineau, and the Moose business model relies on an inter-provincial structure.
The vision for Moose is to use existing rail track to link Arnprior to Papineauville, Bristol to Maxville, and Smiths Falls to La Peche (Wakefield) to create easy access across for business and leisure. While Potvin reports enthusiastic support from Ontario municipalities, some Quebec towns have thrown up not in my backyard responses, including fears that the rail service would compete with, rather than complement, existing bus service.
“We have significant fan base with City of Ottawa staff, but we will always get opposition from that part of city politics that will ensure there will always be clumsy transit outside of Ottawa’s property tax base,” Potvin says. “If you have easy transit to those areas, then companies find it quite easy to locate in Smiths Falls or Arnprior or Montebello. But if you are a protectionist at the municipal level, Smiths Falls’ gain would be perceived as Ottawa’s loss.”
Potvin believes it’s a crucial time for those towns that would benefit from commuter rail to speak up. “The role that municipalities such as Smiths Falls and Arnprior can play is to make their voices heard with their federal politicians,” he says. “This an issue where the referee has to get off the bench and blow the whistle.”
Though still determined and optimistic, Potvin says “2017 will be the watershed year: either it pushes forward or it’s toast. I don’t get frustrated. This may or may not succeed. What’s a mystery to me is why the feds sit back and let a multi-billion dollar asset go to waste.”
This article first appeared in the May issue of Hometown News.