Development for the future of Niagara must be smart, informed, and data-driven. We need to focus not just on attracting business investment, but on reducing poverty, on mitigating climate change, on building health and well-being, and many other factors that will make Niagara a prosperous, healthy, and sustainable community for the future. The economic players that Niagara should be bringing here are not merely interested in parcels of land, tax breaks, and a large body of semi-skilled labour, which may have been enough in previous generations. They need a vibrant and safe community that is forward-thinking and which will attract the workforce they want to employ. Although addressing these concerns will be a major, long-term project, there are several initiatives we feel the next set of municipal governments in Niagara can undertake to advance us down this path.
Good policy depends on good data. Without solid information, any organization is working in the dark. Niagara has many agencies involved in producing data, but they are either private-sector, limited in scope, or an arm of the government. Niagara needs an independent, honest, and public data research body. The next governments in Niagara should fund a data-gathering agency, with input, guidance, and liaison from existing data-gathering agencies such as the Niagara Community Observatory or Niagara Workforce Planning Board, make that agency politically independent with no direct government influence over its agenda, inquiries, results, operations, or publication, and guarantee its funding. To move forward, we must be unafraid to ask difficult questions and unafraid to confront the results, even if we do not like them. An independent, public data organization in Niagara will help us to do this.
Revising and expanding Niagara’s public transit systems to better serve riders has been a GNCC policy priority for many years. Niagara’s employers recognize the importance of a good public transit system for their workforce and their customers, not to mention the role public transit plays in tourism, in healthcare, in poverty reduction and in community participation.
Progress has been made in unifying Niagara’s public transit systems as a single authority and making that system serve the needs of riders better. The next governments in Niagara must ensure that momentum is not lost. The GNCC asks all candidates for elected office in Niagara to commit to implementing the plan for a unified transit system with a single farebox, and to optimize services within that system, particularly on existing and potential intermunicipal routes such as Smithville- Grimsby GO station, St. Catharines-Niagara Falls-Fort Erie, and St. Catharines- Welland-Port Colborne.
Further, there are several other near-term policies for transit that the next governments of Niagara could implement, including investigating demand-responsive transit services using ride-hailing technology and working towards integrating fare systems with Hamilton and GTA transit systems (which will be important once all-day, year-round GO train service arrives in Niagara). We also urge transit authorities to release ridership data that could be analyzed to make better use of limited resources and thus better serve the ridership and consider releasing ridership data as open data. Such a policy could not only help transit services become more efficient but could also assist private-sector transit providers and general business development.
Due to budgetary constraints, there now exists a sizeable backlog of outstanding work in crucial municipal infrastructure areas such as roads, bridges, water mains, and sanitary sewers. At the end of 2016, for example, the City of St. Catharines found that its own gap was $140-million, and that annual infrastructure investment fell short of what was necessary to maintain existing infrastructure by $14-million. By early 2018, the St. Catharines gap had increased by $132-million despite a 1% infrastructure levy introduced in 2016 aimed at closing it. Niagara Region, in 2016, faced a $185-million infrastructure gap.
This is not a unique problem for Niagara. Across Canada, municipalities now own $141-billion of assets rated as in “poor” or “very poor” condition, according to the Canadian Infrastructure Report Card. The pressures of climate change and population growth will only add to this burden as infrastructure is damaged or simply proves inadequate to new conditions.
To avoid future catastrophe, such as mass failures of vital infrastructure or municipal bankruptcy, action must be taken now. The GNCC urges the next municipal governments of Niagara to make infrastructure deficits a priority, and look at solutions not only including property taxes and development charges, but advocacy for provincial and federal funding and for the continued uploading of municipal services (particularly reversing those which the Province had previously downloaded), new permanent taxation powers, streamlining roles, harmonizing departments, and more.