The grassroots group fighting for the maintenance and enhancement of passenger rail service to St. Marys achieved a significant boost in financial support from the Town of St. Marys for 2016. But a $13,000 contribution under the Town’s Grant Program could also be described as significantly less than what the group requested.
Citing a desire to retain the Town’s status as a majority funder of Save VIA, Councillor Don Van Galen put forward a motion during a budget-only meeting of Town Council on Tuesday, Feb. 17 to provide the organization with $13,000 in 2016. His motion, based on a proposed Save VIA budget brought to Council earlier in the month by organization leader Chris West, established the Town as a 50 per cent funder of the $26,000 financial plan.
Van Galen’s motion found favour among all four other councillors in attendance at the meeting; Councillor Jim Craigmile was absent.
The grant represents an increase of $7,500 over what was provided by the Town to Save VIA in 2015 — the first year the organization applied for and was approved for a Grant Program contribution. The grants are covered off by interest earned by the Town from the sale in the 1990s of the former Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to what became the Stratford-based Festival Hydro utility provider .
But it also represents a $7,000 shortfall from what West requested during his early February presentation to Council. The Save VIA application asked for $20,000 in 2016.
Prior to the vote on Van Galen’s motion, Councillor Bill Osborne stated he would be willing to support a grant to Save VIA, but not to the tune of $20,000.
“We’re not the sole municipality involved in all this,” Osborne said of the potential benefits of having VIA Rail enhance service to St. Marys . . . or of the potential downfalls if VIA cuts more trains. “I think (the request for municipal government funding) should be spread out.”
Councillor Lynn Hainer agreed. She reported her attendance as a Town of St. Marys representative at a recent meeting in London hosted by a provincial government committee looking into a high-speed rail link between Windsor and Toronto. At that meeting, she was seated with representatives from Oxford County, and she suggested some residents of Oxford would also benefit if VIA service to St. Marys improves.
Like Osborne, she supported the notion of St. Marys being a leader among Save VIA supporters.
“I believe that because of the work of this organization we are the centrepoint — the “poster child,” for lack of a better word — for transportation in rural and smaller communities,” she commented. But she agreed the $20,000 request was “a significant ask” that she didn’t feel comfortable supporting.
For the Feb. 17 meeting, Treasurer Jim Brown had prepared a list of Grant Program applicants and recipients over the past three years, and that list showed clearly that requests in 2016 far outstrip those from 2014 and 2015. Not only that, Brown added, the amount of interest earned on the PUC account have tended to be between $20,000-$30,000 annually, “and those returns . . . are declining (due to low interest rates), plus we’re never adding to the capital (in the fund).”
Still, the treasurer said, that shouldn’t be a determinant for whether or not an applicant receives a grant, nor for the value of that grant. “The applicants, I believe, should be supported or denied on their merits.”
The perceived merits of the Save VIA application had been outlined to councillors earlier in the week when West sent out an email responding to some questions arising from his earlier presentation. In that email, he listed what he believed were accomplishments of the group in 2015 thanks in part to last year’s $5,500 municipal contribution. These included, as stated in West’s email (a copy of which was sent to the Journal Argus): “Establishing awareness of train first then how to book and board and discovering ease; Use of train at St. Marys station up 75 per cent from prior high; Developing MP support, approaching 100 supporters and increasing daily; Meetings with MPs, Metrolinx, VIA; NDP caucus address in Ottawa; wheelchair lift at St. Marys station; events driving media and political attention.”
“To do all this,” West explained in his email to councillors, “we require financial support.”
The merits of Save VIA were also presented earlier in the Feb. 17 meeting by retired physician Dr. Jim Hiscock, during a segment of the budget-only meeting set aside for questions from the public. Hiscock, who first set up his practice in St. Marys in 1963, said he has been taking the train since his medical training days travelling from his hometown of Sudbury to university in London. He and his family are still frequent VIA Rail passengers.
“Put forward a little investment into VIA Rail,” he urged councillors. “I think it’s still one of the most important aspects of keeping our community recognized.”