The federal-provincial battle over what Ottawa should pay to cover the cost of last summer’s train disaster in Lac-Mégantic is far from over, says Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois.
The next phase of the reconstruction project involves building a new railway line to bypass the community at an estimated cost of about $175-million.
Ms. Marois says the federal government has full jurisdiction over railway transportation and should be held responsible for paying the complete cost of the bypass.
“They have a duty to fulfill their responsibilities,” Ms. Marois said while campaigning in the riding of Mégantic, about 35 kilometres from Lac-Mégantic. “They have jurisdiction over railroad safety and it will be up to Ottawa to pay what it will cost.”
Last month Ottawa and Quebec reached an agreement to cover the costs of rebuilding and cleaning up the town’s business district, which was levelled after a runaway train loaded with crude oil jumped the tracks and exploded, killing 47 people.
Ottawa held tough on its refusal to cover the full cost of the disaster. The two governments agreed to a 50-50 split with no maximum on the amount that will eventually be needed to help Lac-Mégantic residents recover from the tragedy.
Ms. Marois said rather than be dragged into a long battle over who pays for what, it was better to accept an unsatisfactory deal than no deal at all.
“Remember that Ottawa didn’t want to pay anything because it wasn’t considered a natural catastrophe…But I didn’t want to deprive the residents of Lac Mégantic of assistance given the tragedy they experienced,” she said.
The federal minister responsible for economic development in Quebec, Denis Lebel, repudiated Ms. Marois’ criticism.
”Ever since this tragedy we have always been there for the residents of Lac Mégantic,” Mr. Lebel stated in an e-mail. He noted that the federal government has made $155-million available to help the community, including $95-million for decontamination costs, $35-million for the local economy and $25-million to help pay for emergence response teams. As Minister of Infrastructure, Communities and Intergovernmental Affairs, Mr. Lebel reiterated he has no intentions of getting involved in the provincial election campaign.
The PQ leader said she has no regrets about “opening the valves” to allow funds to flow into the town to help residents rebuild their lives. But as the community enters a new phase of its reconstruction project, Ms. Marois says she will demand that Ottawa carry a greater portion of the financial burden that lies ahead.
The April 7 vote may be an opportunity for residents to express their concerns over Ottawa’s handling of the tragedy. The riding of Mégantic is represented by a Liberal at the provincial level and a Conservative, Christian Paradis, in Ottawa. Ms. Marois handpicked the popular director-general of the local Chamber of Commerce Isabelle Hallé to run for the PQ.
Ms. Marois’ handling of the disaster was viewed as the first step in the road to boosting the PQ approval rating among voters leading up to the election. Should the PQ win the riding it may serve as a warning to the Conservatives who can ill afford to lose any of the handful of seats they hold in the province.
The two governments have not yet estimated the total cost of the disaster. It is estimated it will take years – and several millions of dollars more in government aid – before the town recovers from the catastrophe.
On Tuesday, Ms. Marois said that if elected she will substantially boost funding to promote tourism in the province especially in outlying regions where tourist dollars play a major role in the local economy.