As early as this fall,Niagara-on-the-Lake town council will be asked to support an integrated regional transit system that has been more than 10 years in the making.
Once a majority of regional councillors approves a consolidation plan, with the vote expected in October, the 12 municipalities will be expected to vote to allow it to move forward, requiring a triple majority, which means a majority of municipalities, and those municipalities in support must represent a majority of Niagara residents.
During early discussions of a consolidated transit system, NOTL councillors liked the concept and the idea of a single fare, but were concerned about the cost. It was expected to be fully funded based on assessment, which, like policing, would make it an expensive system for NOTL taxpayers, who would receive considerably less service in comparison to other municipalities, said Lord Mayor Betty Disero.
The cost, and the lack of representation for future decision-making on details of the transit system, were the two main issues that faced small communities such as NOTL.
But the refined plan that will be presented to regional councillors addresses those concerns, members of the transit committee, including regional staff and municipal representatives, said in a virtual presentation Friday.
The committee is ready for the final phase of reaching out to the public and to municipal politicians with that plan, counting on a positive response to move forward with it.
Since service levels are different in each municipality, the recommendation expected to go to regional council suggests 12 special levies be adopted for 2023, when the integrated system is expected to launch. NOTL’s special levy will allocate the cost of inter-municipal Niagara Regional Transit services, based on assessment, as a baseline, plus the cost of the on-demand service, based on hours used.
The special levy on the regional portion of residents’ tax bills would replace any transit costs they pay through their municipal taxes, and should be relatively “cost neutral,” explained Mat Siscoe, a St. Catharines city councillor and chair of the transit committee.
The integrated system will include daily scheduled buses available in larger municipalities, as well as the specialized and on-demand shuttles residents in smaller communities rely on.
To simplify use for riders, there will be one fare, with payment through new technology; consistent and expanded operating hours across the region; and integrated schedules and stops.
Siscoe said these improvements to the system, and the eventual implementation of better and more express routes, will mean people can “get where they need to go, when they need to go to those places.”
While it’s now “relatively easy” to get around each of the three larger municipalities, he said, “as soon as residents want to travel from one municipality to another, it becomes more difficult.”
An integrated system will make that easier, and also help those in smaller municipalities using the ride-sharing on-demand service “to connect to the Niagara transit eco-system and the broader service around Niagara.”
He said the committee has heard from Niagara residents that different fares and different operating services still make it difficult to get from one municipality to another, and can create confusion for transit riders.
“The reality is when it comes to long-term goals of transit, we can’t do it piecemeal,” he said, and creating one integrated system will also “create significantly less friction” for users, encouraging Niagara residents to consider public transit “a very viable option when they need to go places.”
Siscoe explained he has been involved in transit since he was elected to the St. Catharines city council in 2010, and he didn’t start out as a proponent of one regional system.
Over time, he said, he has come to see the benefits of an integrated system, and has gone from arguing against it to becoming a full-blown convert.
“I believe this region-wide system will meet the needs of the community better.”
In the region’s Moving Transit Forward plan, a consolidated system is intended to contribute to the social and economic prosperity of Niagara.
It is expected to open up new job options for residents in neighbouring municipalities, and new markets for businesses; it will protect the environment by providing more sustainable and environmentally-friendly public transit, reducing traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions; it will scale up to meet the needs of a growing population; and it will support the expansion and connectivity of GO Transit.
It is the “piece of the puzzle that connects everyone else in the region into that GO rail expansion,” said Siscoe.
Port Colborne CAO and committee member Scott Luey pointed out that supporting transit is similar to supporting libraries or arenas, even for taxpayers who don’t use those services. “It is an economic development initiative, a social initiative for those who don’t have cars, and it can be a healthcare initiative for those who need to get to medical appointments.”
It could also be a boost to tourism, providing public transit to those from across the region and the GTA to visit tourist attractions such as the Falls and local wineries.
NOTL Regional Coun. Gary Zalepa says it’s the first time a “hybrid model” of assessing regional costs will be used, based partly on assessment and partly on level of service, and he’s satisfied both the financial and governance issues have been addressed. “It’s really important for Niagara region to move this forward,” he said, suggesting Niagara is lagging behind what other regions are providing when it comes to transit.
The refined transit plan now being proposed “checks all the boxes. The region has done a great job.”
For NOTL, it should mean better on-demand services for all residents, in each of the villages. “We’ve done very well with the on-demand service, and we’ll be able to expand and enhance it from what we’re doing today.”
The final hurdle will be receiving the triple majority vote needed to move forward, and to make that easier for municipalities, there is currently a five-minute transit survey online for Niagara residents at www.MovingTransitForward.ca, which will be available until Oct. 3. The results are intended to provide information to municipal councils about the level of support in their communities before they vote on the plan.
If the triple-majority vote supports a unified transit system, a 15-member commission will be formed, with three representatives from St. Catharines, two from Niagara Falls, and one from each of the other municipalities.
A 20-member advisory board will also be formed, with representation from each municipality as well.
The transit commission model will be subject to an external review after three years of operation, said committee member Mike Kirkopoulos, to determine if it’s the right make-up, and as a creation of regional council, any changes to be made to the model would be by a decision of regional council.