Other Regions Of Ontario Are Years Ahead Of Us
A Commentary by Doug Draper
Posted June 30th, 2016 on Niagara At Large
“We have finally done it.”
Those were among the first words out of the mouth of a beaming Niagara regional chair Allan Caslin this past Tuesday, June 28th when Ontario’s Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca announced that the province will move forward with plans to bring year-round, weekday GO rail services into the Niagara Region by the year 2021, and run them all the way through to Niagara Falls by 2023.
That is encouraging news as far as it goes, Mr. Chair, but it is far too early to say ‘we have finally done it’.
First of all, a lot could happen before the first weekday Go train is expected to arrive in Niagara in 2021, including at least one municipal and one provincial election which could change the make-up of the political players and the priorities they have for transportation operations in this region and the province.
Second – and most importantly – Niagara still has a long way to go relative to many other regions in Ontario when it comes to establishing a real region-wide transit system of its own to work in tandem inter-regional commuter trains services.
Regions like Waterloo had the will and vision to upload public transit services from lower-tier municipalities, including the cities of Waterloo and Kitchener, to the regional government level more than a decade ago, and riderships have soared. So has the influx of business and younger people able to use the services for getting to where they want to go, when they need to be there.
And what has Niagara done?
It has a patchwork of local transit systems and a few buses the regional government put on the road about six years ago as a “pilot” for what we were led to believe would blossom in to a more fully realized ‘inter-municipal transit system’.
It adds up to a service that is so inconvenient for many residents that it is almost a recipe for failure. So much so that inter-municipal buses are too often seen going down the road with very few people in them, leaving those regional politicians who never wanted a Niagara-wide transit system in the first place to say; ‘See, no one’s using them so let’s shut it down.”
In September of 2015, when the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce held its annual Economic Summit and hosted a panel discussion on regional transit services, former Niagara regional chair Debbie Zimmerman and St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik took turns on that panel stressing the need for building one single-fair transit system for all of Niagara as soon as possible.
Around the same time, I called Caslin and asked him why Niagara’s municipal leaders haven’t made much progress on that front since September of 2011 when then Niagara regional chair Gary Burroughs and others celebrated the launch of about a half a dozen inter-municipal buses that would mainly run back and forth between St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Welland.
“Oh, you’re way behind in your information,” Caslin was quick to tell me before going on about a “working group” that he and his council have put together to plan an expanded inter-municipal transit system by around the end of this year.
This working group consists of Caslin and some regional staff, and the mayors and CAOs of Niagara Falls, St. Catharines and Welland where the three larger transit commissions currently operating in Niagara are based. Earlier this year it was reported that they are working with a budget of $150,000 to cover the costs of hiring “outside expertise” and exploring “best practices” for putting an expanded system together.
Now maybe I am behind in my information, but why do we need this working group when the regional government already has an established ‘transportation strategy steering committee’ consisting of a cross section of municipal officials, members of the public with a background in planning and transportation issues and representatives of students at Niagara College and Brock University who are major users of transit services in the region?
And why do we need to spend tens of thousands of taxdollars on more experts and studies when the regional government already has enough reports on expanding transit services – some of them going back more than five to 10 years – to fill a walk-in closet?
How many times have we been told by some of our more vocal regional councillors that we already have the expertise we need serving on the transit commissions in St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Welland?
That is exactly what we were told almost each and every time someone tried to get up at a regional council meeting and suggest that the local transit services should be amalgamated and operated at the regional level.
So here we still are after years of some of our more forward thinking regional councillors (many of them no longer on the council), along with members of the business community, student organizations and other citizens across Niagara lobbying over and over again for a good working, accessible, affordable transit service for the whole region.
Here we are with another working group spending more of our money on more studies and design plans.
We have finally done it?
I am sure that I am far from the only person in this region who does not believe so.
In the days and weeks ahead, Niagara At Large will be posting stories based on interviews and information obtained from Waterloo and other regions on what our municipal leaders in Niagara n could have done years ago, if enough of them had the will and vision, to have a 21st Century regional transit system up and running now.
For a related story on the recent announcement about future Go rail services in Niagara click on – https://niagaraatlarge.com/2016/06/28/provincial-government-commits-to-daily-go-train-service-to-niagara-ontario/#more-19623 .
Read a story Niagara At Large posted on the 2011 launch of inter-municipal buses in Niagara by clicking on – https://niagaraatlarge.com/2011/09/17/we-finally-have-the-makings-of-a-regional-transit-system-in-niagara/
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