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Niagara gets $149 million for transit

Niagara gets $149 million for transit

Niagara gets $149 million for transit

NEWS  by Allan Benner –  St. Catharines Standard

With an investment of $149 million from upper-tier governments, Niagara’s long-awaited intermunicipal transit service could be much closer to reality.

Calling it “the single largest investment in transit in Niagara’s history,” Niagara Centre MP Vance Badawey said the eight Niagara municipalities receiving funding are free to use it for transportation-related projects, whether it’s transit services or active transportation projects like trails and bike lanes.

“It’s a bit more holistic and less stringent,” Badawey said, adding it will be up to municipalities to decide on priorities for the funds.

He hopes, however, the bulk of the funding — to be spread out over 10 years — will be used to ensure that “a streamlined, more efficient and affordable regional (transit) system is put in place which aligns with the future GO service.”

“That’s the key … It’s well overdue,” Badawey said, adding it’s an initiative he recalls discussing 20 years ago.

 Badawey teamed up with St. Catharines MP Chris Bittle and MPP Jim Bradley at regional headquarters Thursday to announce $81.2 million from the federal government and $67 million in provincial funding to help cover the costs of transit capital infrastructure for the next decade.

Bittle said intermunicipal transit “is one of the issues that was holding Niagara back,” when competing with other municipalities to attract employers to the area.

“This really helps us take the next step forward. I’m looking forward to working with the mayors, because we’re not quite at intermunicipal transit yet, but hopefully this is the next step towards that ultimate goal,” Bittle said.

Bradley said the funding, being divvied up among the Niagara municipalities providing transit services, is in addition to upper-tier government gas tax money provided annually to help cover the operating costs of the services.

“This is capital — the gas tax is operating,” Bradley said.

The investments, he added, “are necessary if we want to maintain a booming economy and a high standard of living.”

Regional Chair Alan Caslin said the size of the investment means paying for the service will no longer be as much of obstacle.

“It’s going to mean that long term plans for consolidated transit are going to become a reality. This will really be the catalyst for putting us over the tipping point.”

Although the funding won’t speed up the work being done by Niagara Region’s intermunicipal transit working group, which is expected to have finalized plans for the transition to the consolidated service by the end of the year, it may help make political decisions easier when it comes to allocating funding.

“A lot of it is the political and bureaucratic will on pulling this all together,” Caslin said. “There are a number of changes that will take place in consolidating it, as well as infrastructure. That all has to be co-ordinated properly in order to get the best bang for the buck.”

The lion’s share of the funding goes to St. Catharines, with $47 million from the federal government and $39 million from the province. Niagara Falls will receive nearly $21 million in federal funding and $17 million from the province; and Welland gets $7 million from the federal government and provincial funding of about $6.5 million. The remaining funding goes to Thorold, Niagara Region, Fort Erie, Port Colborne and Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The funding was divvied up based on the ridership of each of the municipalities.

St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik said the funding recognizes “the success of the system to date, and allows us to continue to grow it and work towards an integrated model with the other transit systems.”

While Sendzik acknowledged that regional transit is the priority, he pointed out that other active transportation initiatives contribute to the same goal.

“Whether it’s bike lanes or the trail systems or public or specialized transit, we have to make sure it’s all connected and these investments that are being made are allowing us to do that,” Sendzik said. “It allows us to accelerate a lot of projects that are already on the books as well. That’s why a lot of it will go to public transit because St. Catharines Transit has done a good job of putting together its needs for the next 10 years and a lot of this will feed into that.”

Bradley said he hopes to see more upgraded buses rolling along the streets of Niagara, as a result of the funding commitment.

“Buses are transforming. Each new bus has amenities the others don’t have. They’re cleaner for the environment, they’re much more accessible for people who have a disability, they don’t make as much noise and they’re simple a better ride for people.”