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Tarbutt says no to Sault rail support

Clerk questions business sense behind pitch for funding
Rail crossing
The owners of the Huron Central Railway are calling for government assistance.

The Township of Tarbutt has joined others in not supporting Sault Ste. Marie’s bid to secure government funding and keep Huron Central Rail (HCR) moving.

Council passed its motion two months ago and is making its rejection heard.

In fact, Tarbutt council was the first municipality to reject the city's request for support and stands by its decision even though Sault Ste. Marie is continuing to pressure the federal and provincial governments for more money to make necessary repairs to the rail line.

"I would hope no council or ministry would support funding Huron Central Rail, a private, American-owned railway, without first seriously looking at all the facts and alternatives," said clerk Glenn Martin. “Council would have a hard time explaining to their residents how their community has benefited by giving that kind of public money away when we struggle, often unsuccessfully, to get infrastructure funding for our own municipal projects."

If funding is provided to Huron Central, it will amount to nearly $80 million in less than 10 years being provided to an American company to keep it operating.

Martin questioned the business sense behind the funding request.

"Who of us that have had our own business ever received a handout like that, no strings or conditions?" he asked. "They can take their profit, pay their employees, but they cannot maintain their own infrastructure.”

Tarbutt first became aware of this issue during the provincial election in June.

For candidates, it was a political position in an election campaign to save everything without ever seriously considering the outcome, Martin said.

"At the end of the election, we thought the issue was dead. However, we then became aware of the task force put together by the City of Sault Ste. Marie and felt it was important to make our position known. The millions, if given to HCR, will be millions that will not be available for our local communities."

Tarbutt Township has not been successful in applying for infrastructure funding for a culvert replacement that is considered part of its critical infrastructure.

"When asked, we were told the province just doesn't have the money," Martin said. "But, then we are expected to support giving $80 million in less than 10 years to a private railway.”

“How can any council justify to their residents why they would support giving millions to HCR when HCR admits there is no light in sight for turning their rail line around, yet at the same time we have to raise property taxes to pay for our own critical infrastructure?” Martin added.

"We are pleased to see the Town of Blind River go the extra mile and look at the bigger picture and not simply rubber-stamp a resolution put forward by the City of Sault Ste. Marie," Martin said.

Huron Central runs on track leased from CP rail.

"It is assumed the rail line is to be maintained and returned in a similar condition that it was received," Martin said. "Where is the guarantee that Genesee and Wyoming, the parent company for Huron Central, won't take the taxpayers’ money, spend it on the rail line and then walk away, giving it back to CP? They have said the revenue source is maxed out, they have produced no business plan to show how they will increase revenue, no promise to stay in business until the taxpayers have recouped some benefit from giving nearly $80 million and no guarantee that they won't be back again in the next few years with their hand out for more millions of taxpayers’ dollars, and we get chastised for questing the business sense this makes."

Tarbutt Township has a population of about 400 people and pays $2,000 a year for half of the maintenance of one rail crossing it shares with a neighbouring municipality.

Tarbutt, along with other municipalities that have track travelling through their municipalities from Sault Ste. Marie to Espanola, has to face the issue as part of its emergency plan and the potential derailment issues.

Council sees this as bad business with no promises and no guarantees, and says it cannot justify support of this magnitude.

Martin said he was disappointed to read HCR task force member Joe Fratesi considered $80 million in less than 10 years for this private company to be not a handout but something that should be expected.

"We have always maintained that a portion of HCR should remain operating," Martin said. "The portion of track from Espanola to Sudbury received the majority of the $33 million in 2010. We appreciate the need for the line from Espanola to Sudbury and that portion should continue as a spur serviced out of Sudbury as it has in the past and is currently being serviced."

"There is fear mongering that the closing of HCR will put massive amounts of trucks on our highways," he continued. "That doesn't have to happen. The flip side, however, it would employ more than the current 43. The increased traffic volume may get our four-lane built quicker, and it cannot put our communities at greater risk than they currently are with the condition of the rail line that passes through our communities."

However, there is another option and there is a benefit to closing HCR.

In the past, the CN line running north and south out of the Sault has serviced the needs of the city. The CN line is not a single service line like HCR. The line running north is multi-purposed; it services private landowners, tourist business, tourism, Agawa Canyon, freight, and it used to do passenger service all the way to Hearst.

Using and investing in one multi-purpose line makes better business sense, said Martin. Using the CN lines also takes away the concern of crossings and derailments. It also connects at Franz and Oba to the First Class National CN and CP lines.

Council did provide a counter-proposal that could see the rest of the line from Sault Ste. Marie to Espanola, with CP's blessing, be turned into a rail-to-trail system.

"Imagine the tourist attraction and economic benefit of a trail system of that calibre could have on this area," Martin said. "Finally, the rail system would actually benefit every community along the way. The potential is unlimited, a four-season trail for everything from snow machines to horseback riding, hiking and bicycles, that would be worth an investment of some public funding."

Tarbutt continues to be an advocate for the railway systems in Canada, Martin said.

“Canada was built on the railway systems of this country. Canada should be a leader in railways and rail technology. But at the end of the day we need to make smart, informed decisions when we are spending the small amount of infrastructure funds available to us today.”

Huron Central Rail fast facts

Main customers: Algoma (Essar site), Domtar and Eacom

Employees: 43

Track miles: 176

Crossings: 175

Ties: 557,570

Rails: 1,858 miles of rail feet

Bridges: 68 units

Turnouts: 80 units


Donna Schell

About the Author: Donna Schell

Donna Schell is a longtime St. Joseph Island resident and freelance journalist who has been covering the Island and surrounding area for nearly two decades.
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