Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Going nowhere? Municpal morosity and railway riches

Empty, sad.. and expensive!
Leafing through the latest edition of  Le Petit Borain, Bourg St Maurice's quarterly 'magazine muncipal', is a depressing experience.  Since the departure of the 7 BCA from the Quartier Bulle barracks last June, the permanent population has effectively shrunk by a third, with a consequent reduction of spending power and municipal revenues. Like all communes in France, Bourg is being affected by a significant decrease in government subsidies and other contributions (in the order of 10 - 20%) and faces a rise in VAT later this year to 21%. Bourg St Maurice has debts of about €35 million euros, which it is trying to reduce by €2 million a year to eventually increase its ability to raise funds (more borrowing?) for future projects.

As for current projects, it seems the only thing that is going ahead this year is a new covered car park at Arc 2000, which will cost €350,000 euros and hopefully generate €80,000 euros a year. Does Arc 2000 need a new, expensive car park, I ask myself, for stationary cars to sit in for 7 days? There seems to be plenty of parking, covered and uncovered around, including the under-used car-park at Pré St Espirit. How about buying a few buses and offering a decent bus service from Bourg to Arc 2000 on Saturdays with enough room for luggage, etc? Think how much carbon and money that could save over the 20 year projected payback period of the Lac des Combes project.

Life in the 1970s
Another major project,  the Centre National de Ski de Haut Niveau is in suspended animation while the regional authorities decide how much (if any) they are prepared to contribute. The 'opinion piece' at the back of Le Petit Borain, from the leftish 'Avenir' group points out that the town will need to raise nearly €14 million in two years if CNSHN goes ahead as planned,  by selling of bits of real-estate,  such as the old Renoveau holiday camp (it went bankrupt 3 years ago).  If you are interested in buying a sprawling, run-down Soviet-style collection of buildings and campsites, is on the market for €6 million! Strangely enough this is the same amount Pierres et Vacances paid to buy up Intrawest's remaining share of Arc 1950 last year...

Perhaps the best the town can hope for is selling it at 30% below the asking price, as happened with the old Gendarmerie (went for under €2 million in the end). The empty barracks are going to cost the town €400,000 a year to maintain; not hard to see why the Ministry of Defence was delighted to sell them for one euro!

Bourg St Maurice station in the 1920s
Enough of this. Let's celebrate one of  the greatest projects Bourg has ever seen, and possibly without which we wouldn't all be here. This year is the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the railway. The only reason there is a railway line all the way up the Tarentaise valley is that the ambitious engineer behind it, Abel Gotteland, planned to extend the line all the way to Turin and Milan. There was going to be a 22 kilometre tunnel from Viclaire (just after Bourg on the way to Val d'Isere) to the Aosta valley in Italy. It had taken nealy 40 years to build the railway this far from Albertville, but Gotteland reckoned the tunnelling stage could be done in 5 years, with 5000 men!

How feasible this was we shall never know, because the advent of the First World War in 1914 put an end to the project. But it did leave us with one of the finest pieces of railway engineering in the world which was regarded as an asset to the development of the skiing business right from its earliest days. Trains come from as far away as Amsterdam, London, Brest, Hamburg and Madrid. Chalet guests who have been sitting in 5 hour traffic jams on Saturday ask me sometimes, why can't there be more trains, a direct service from Geneva airport perhaps?  Apparently the line and its terminus are already 'saturated' on Saturdays, no room for any more trains.

Jacqueline Peretti, the Mayor
Mde Peretti, the Mayor, says in her forward to Le Petit Borain:

"This year will be a year when we lay the foundation stones of major structural projects which will be our way of responding to the economic crisis we face, with determination and goodwill... lets not believe that our future will be mediocre...." 

Perhaps her words would have a less hollow ring if she had reminded the townsfolk of some of Bourg's great past achievements, products of the imagination, ambition and sacrifice of people like Abel Gotteland  in the face of far worse circumstances and even more difficult times.

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