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Unprecedented public transit investment commitments for Niagara

Unprecedented public transit investment commitments for Niagara

Largest commitment in funds in region’s history crucial for integrated transit with GO Transit commuter rail coming, officials say

NEWS by Paul Forsyth – Niagara This Week – St. Catharines

Massive federal and provincial investments announced for public transit for Niagara on Thursday could be the final push necessary to create a truly consolidated transit system that officials say is crucial for this region to realize its true economic potential.
In what is being called unprecedented in its scope, the federal government announced $81.3 million for transit in Niagara over 10 years, while the province announced a further $67 million.“This is the single largest commitment of transit funds in Niagara’s history,” St. Catharines riding MP Chris Bittle told a large crowd outside regional headquarters with a backdrop of city and regional buses.“Public transit is the key ingredient to the economic success of any community and is a key factor to the economic resurgence of the Niagara Region,” Bittle said.Regional chair Alan Caslin told the crowd these are sunny days for the economic landscape of Niagara, a region that in the wake of the Great Recession a decade ago saw large job losses, slow growth and for a time the highest unemployment rate in Canada.

New Statistics Canada figures show Niagara’s jobless rate has fallen to its lowest rate in two decades, and a recent report pegged this region’s economic growth potential among the highest in Canada, Caslin noted.

But he said Niagara’s lack of integrated transit compared to other Ontario regions is a liability because employers such as hotels are begging for workers to fill job vacancies while people without a car can’t get to jobs.

“We’re at a disadvantage,” he told Niagara This Week.

Caslin told the crowd better transit is a top priority for the region. “Collectively, we’ve heard it loud and clear that it is important to the people and Niagara and it is a driving force behind the economic prosperity of Niagara,” he said.

Thursday’s announcement of nearly $150 million in upper level government funding for transit is a “momentous occasion” for Niagara, Caslin said.

“The future is looking bright for consolidated transit in Niagara,” he said.

Niagara Centre riding MP Vance Badawey said the upper levels of government have a major role to play in addressing the huge infrastructure shortfall that cities, towns and regions across Canada are struggling under.

“Investments from the federal government are pivotal game-changers for municipalities,” he said.

Being one of the world’s best-known tourist attractions, it’s also important to have integrated transit for visitors to Niagara, said Badawey.

Bittle said public transit can have a “transformative effect” on communities, adding it isn’t just about economic prosperity. It also combats poverty by allowing people without cars to get to jobs, to health care appointments, or to pursue education, he said.

“We must continue to build up our middle class and those who are working hard to join it,” Bittle said.

St. Catharines riding MPP Jim Bradley said the funding infusions by the governments are an example of strategic investments in a region that can help draw young families and investors.

“Our investments are needed if we want to maintain our booming economy and a strong standard of living,” he said.

After the announcements, Bittle told This Week that companies looking for regions to set up shop in look closely at regions’ ability to get people around on dependable transit.

“That’s what companies are looking for, that’s what employers are looking for, that’s what young people are looking for when they settle into a particular community,” he said.

St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik said some of the funding may go to bike lanes and park trails that encourage active transportation as part of livable, sustainable communities, but said the lion’s share would likely go to infrastructure such as buses.

He said Niagara has fallen behind many other Ontario regions by not having a good, regionwide transit system and said old arguments that Niagara’s geography of 12 spread-out communities makes integrated transit unworkable don’t hold water any more.

“While people have used geography as an example of why not to do an integrated transit model, today that doesn’t make sense,” he told This Week. “That’s an antiquated way of thinking.”

Sendzik said Kitchener-Waterloo’s transit integration with Stratford and Cambridge show that good transit systems can work even over very large geographic areas.

St. Catharines gets the biggest share of the funding: $47 million in federal funding and $38.8 million in provincial funding.

Other funding breakdowns by community include:

• Niagara Falls — $20.7 million in federal and $17 million provincial;

• Welland — $7.8 million in federal and $6.5 million in provincial;

• Niagara Region — $1.86 million in federal and $1.5 million in provincial;

• Thorold — $2.96 million in federal and $2.4 million provincial;

• Fort Erie — $524,115 in federal and $432,395 in provincial;

• Port Colborne — $239,041 in federal and $197,210 in provincial;

• Niagara-on-the-Lake — $148,195 in federal and $122,856 in provincial.