No GO for Niagara, but new buses for St. Catharines

On Sept. 27, Ontario Premier Mike Harris proudly announced to the Brampton Board of Trade that the government had become “victims of our own economic success,” and was ready to reassume financial responsibility for mass transit less than three years after downloading made transit a municipal issue. The government claims that a population boom has caused Ontario’s roads and highways to become more congested. This has led the provincial government’s promise to commit $3 billion, over the next 10 years, to improve public transit in the province. Along with this announcement came an expectation by the province that governments at both the municipal and federal levels will each match the $3 billion commitment, raising the total to $9 billion over the next 10 years.

“I hope the indication is there that it’s going to bring GO [Government of Ontario] buses and GO trains to the Niagara Region,” Thorold mayor Robin Davidson said of the new money. “It’s good for the economy, it’s extremely good for the environment getting a lot of those cars off the gridlock on the highways.”

Davidson’s hope for a Niagara GO extension may be a little premature, as Ministry of Transportation spokesperson Bob Nichols had little to say when asked how the province’s announcement might affect Niagara. “It’s much to soon to say, more details will be released at a later date,” he said.

Nichols would not specify what the government’s plans are for the money, but said “details will be coming soon.

“There are no other specifics other then it’s a commitment to spend $3 billion.”

Bringing GO transit to Niagara has been a topic of discussion in the region for a long time. GO’s train service now ends in Hamilton, which was one of the first cities to receive commuter service when GO Transit was established in May 1967.

Niagara regional council already has a committee established to look into transportation issues, such an extension of rail service. In a document posted on the Niagara Transportation Strategy committee Web site on Nov. 21, 2000, the committee listed extended GO or other rail service to Niagara as a priority project. Among a listing of all of the identified priority projects, a feedback poll on the Web site revealed the extension of GO service to Niagara as the leading project among members of the public who had voted in the poll.

In 2000, the government of Ontario, along with the city of Hamilton and the Region of Niagara, commissioned the Niagara Peninsula Transportation Needs Assessment Study. The study indicated that 200 people commute by rail from Niagara to the GTA on a daily basis. These trips were made using VIA rails Toronto-Niagara Falls-New York route. According to the study, based on similar GO Transit experience, if GO was to extend its service from to Niagara, an estimated 600-700 commuter trips (one-way) would be made each day between Niagara and the GTA by 2031. The study concluded that this represented a limited market, but went on to recommend that local transportation agencies initiate discussions with GO Transit and VIA Rail, with the objective of further investigating the feasibility of a GTA – Niagara Falls commuter rail service.

Karen Majorly, a representative of GO Transit, said she’s not sure how the province’s announcement would affect the likelihood of extending service from Hamilton to Niagara,

“It’s still early, but I can tell you that we have a 10 year growth plan and it only looks at the GTA out to Hamilton,” said Majorly. “We are waiting for a new mandate from the province. Ultimately if they say this is an area we would like to get into, then we will present a business plan to them.”

The possibility that the government may extend GO service to the region came in the form of two government press releases.

“This new funding commitment builds on the almost $3.2 billion in transit funding provided by the province since 1995 … this supports inter-regional commuter rail, light rail and transit way expansion in the Golden Horseshoe.”

Another release states, “the new funding is expected to lead to new efficiencies and up to a 50 per cent expansion of public transit across the Golden Horseshoe.”

Even if the extension never occurs, the government’s commitment of $3 billion will have an impact on St. Catharines Transit.

“It’s a very significant announcement for public transit in Ontario,” according to Eric Gillespie, general manager of St. Catharines Transit.

The city had already completed a review of the transit system and has decided to go ahead with a plan to replace the entire fleet of St. Catharines Transit buses over the next 10 years. In the past, the city replaced buses by purchasing used ones from the southern California area, where they replace their buses every 12 years.

The city’s new plan will see the purchase of a brand new, fully accessible fleet of buses. Since the province’s projection of $9 billion over the next 10 years is broken down into thirds, with $3 billion coming from each level of government, it means that the cost of the new fleet will only be one-third of the expected cost.

“We were looking at a cost of $1.2 million to the municipality, now we are looking at $400,000,” said Gillespie. Although the plan to purchase a new fleet was approved prior the provinces announcement, according to Gillespie, “this announcement will go a long way to making that a reality.”

The federal government has yet to issue a formal response to the province’s expectation of their commitment to match the $3 billion. It appears as though they were caught off guard by the announcement and may not be ready to commit the funding the province expected of them.

The provincial government has already begun to put pressure on Ottawa by reminding the government of a promise from the Liberal’s red book: “There is an urgent need for reinvestment in public transit. A new Liberal government will work with provincial and municipal partners to help improve public transit infrastructure.”

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