New commission could oversee consolidated model in major change
The creation of a new commission or board overseeing a consolidated transit system with extended hours and routes that puts customers first—and which can play a key role in efforts to pump up economic prosperity in this region—will in the coming months become a reality if the vision unveiled by an inter-municipal transit working group on Thursday comes to fruition.
With the expiration date of the Region’s inter-municipal pilot program approaching like a freight train in May, work on crafting a bold new future for transit in Niagara has been going on at a feverish pace over the last year since the Region asked the three existing transit authorities in St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Welland to come together to develop a plan.
Many details such as financial aspects still have to be finalized, but the potential for turf wars that could kill any such plan in a region known in the past for its parochialism appears to have been extinguished.
St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik, chair of the transit working group, said the fact he was sitting beside Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati and Welland Mayor Frank Campion inside the new Niagara Falls transit facility in a show of unity on the need for such a change speaks volumes about the importance of a better transit system to boost Niagara’s economy.
“This is a critical juncture, a fork in the road…(for) transit in Niagara,” he said at the media briefing.
“For too long we looked at our communities as economies unto themselves,” said Sendzik. “Those days are long gone. It doesn’t mean we lose our identities as communities, but we have to create the infrastructure that connects the communities.”
Regional Chair Alan Caslin said regional council has made economic prosperity a central focus of everything it’s doing. “This is a key part,” he said. “This is an exciting time for us in Niagara.
“This is going to be a game-changer in Niagara.”
Diodati said Niagara for too long has endured a transit model in which employers in some towns and cities are left begging for workers to fill vacant jobs, while people without cars find it almost impossible to get to jobs in other municipalities, to post-secondary education or to healthcare appointments.
“You’re buying different passes and transfers and it takes hours for you to get where you need to go,” said Diodati. “(Transit) needs to be seamless, simple and as effective as it can be.”
One of the first things the working group heard in consultation with students, business leaders, bus riders and healthcare and social agencies is that transit hours need to be extended in Niagara, said Diodati.
“We need a service that gets them to work on time (and) we have to be able to get them home at the end of the shift, the end of the day,” he said.
The interim report released on Thursday, which will be presented to the councils of the three cities with transit authorities and sent to the other nine cities and towns for feedback, recommends extending evening and weekday peak service, plus Sunday service on some main routes. Annual transit hours are forecasted to go from about 52,100 now to almost 61,000 hours in several years, and overall ridership is expected to climb by about 16 per cent by 2019 compared to last year.
Enhanced transit services will be possible by eliminating duplication and redundancies discovered in the existing transit model, said Caslin.
The interim report also recommends an integrated fare strategy that Niagara Falls chief administrative officer Ken Todd said could eventually mean simply tapping a card to get from bus to bus, and on to GO Transit buses and commuter rail GO Transit trains once they start rumbling into Niagara by 2021.
The report also envisions a new service connecting the planned Grimsby GO train station to Smithville on the border with Hamilton, better integration with existing transit services in places such as Pelham and Niagara-on-the-Lake, a new terminus at the Fort Erie municipal centre, a future stop at a new south Niagara hospital if that becomes reality, and some kind of service to Crystal Beach and Wainfleet possibly using taxis or Niagara Specialized Transit.
The model unveiled shows the three big cities continuing to fully fund local bus services within the consolidated service area and receiving all operating revenue, with the Region funding core inter-municipal routes and partially funding routes to outer municipalities. Those outer towns and cities would cost-share in those routes, and fully fund any local transit system they run.
An advisory committee is planned to represent the interests of towns and cities outside of the main consolidated transit area, said Welland chief administrative officer Gary Long.
Plans call for a final report with detailed financial information to be done by about January.
Todd said the managers of the three existing transit authorities have bought into a consolidated model.
“The managers are coming together,” he said. “They’ve embraced this project. “There’s no holding on or parochialism.”
Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Mishka Balsom said in a letter to Thorold council in June that a single transit system was identified as the highest policy priority for business in Niagara at the 2015 Niagara Economic Summit.
“It is a demand we hear daily from the business community,” Balsom said.
The Region, which currently pays the existing city transit systems to run its regional buses, opted not to pursue the legislative power to be directly involved in transit. Instead, the three existing systems were asked to work together to provide options.
A number of public consultation sessions on the interim report are planned some time in November. Online consultation is also planned.
Welland Mayor Frank Campion said feedback from residents is crucial. “It’s a key component,” he said.
Campion and Diodati said the three big city mayors all recognize the importance of getting the new transit model right, albeit on a tight timeline.
“We’re stronger when we work together and we’re not competing with each other,” said Diodati. “We’re competing with other regions. As we come together and share our resources we become that much stronger, that much more competitive and that much more attractive to industry and to business that are looking to locate.”
Sendzik said a better transit system isn’t just designed to allow Niagara to play catch-up with other cities and regions like Mississauga, London and Hamilton. “We want to try to leap frog” them, he said.
Paul Forsyth is Niagara This Week’s regional reporter, as well as Thorold reporter, covering a wide range of topics from politics to community and human interest stories. In his 30 years of reporting he has won numerous journalism awards at the local, provincial and national level. Follow him on Twitter or on on Facebook.