Tag Archives: transit

niagara region transit bus service

Public Transit in Niagara – Region Seeks Consultant for Single System

Editor’s note: this post is the first of a few that will look at public transit in Niagara


Niagara has 8 public transit systems, or one for every 50,000 people. That’s too many public transit systems. Many believe having a single public transit system would be preferable, particularly for the user. Some believe improved public transit in Niagara is necessary to attract regular GO train service to Niagara.

Our 8 systems don’t integrate particularly well, if it all. Which makes sense; each of the eight systems serve a different master. Even within single public transit systems there are plenty of issues. For example, a large system like Niagara Falls has routes with only one bus an hour. Frustration with status quo has been expressed by many. For a long time. Are improvements on the way?

On Friday, Niagara Region issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) from consultants. It’s titled “Niagara Transit Service Delivery and Governance” and is valued at $150,000. (It might be coincidental, but Friday is known as the day to “bury” news; though I’ll give the Region the benefit of the doubt because RFPs are not typically newsworthy.)

niagara region RFP

RFPgoal

The listed goal in Niagara Region’s public transit RFP


 

Where did this come from?

This RFP builds off the decision, last May, for the three largest Niagara municipalities (St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Welland) to work together to provide a single, inter-municipal transit system. That decision halted the Region’s initial plan: work with the 12 lower-tier municipalities to move towards a single transit system.

Niagara region halts public transit strategy

The reason behind halting that and allowing the three largest municipalities to take over is seen in this excerpt from The St. Catharines Standard:

SendzikKnowledge


 

So, if the three municipalities are the experts, why (nearly a year later) is the Region (not the three cities) funding a consultant?

The likely short answers are time and parochialism. It is true that each of the three municipalities have transit staff that feature experts in public transit. But those experts already have full-time jobs that don’t provide the sort of downtime necessary for planning and implementing a Niagara-wide transit system. And, secondly, those full-time jobs are explicitly to work on behalf of the citizens of one municipality.

Hence, the Region has remained part of the transit working group and that group determined a neutral party (consultant) is required to help plan the system. Except, this is what the Region was already offering to do before being halted last Spring. In fact, the Region used the same method to garner expertise as it is now: consultants’ reports.

Here are 4 from a recent five year period, all delivered to Niagara Region.

  1. Inter-Municipal Transit Work-Plan, Phase 1 – ENTRA, October 2009 [96 pages]
  2. Inter-Municipal Transit Work-Plan, Phase 2 – ENTRA, May 2010 [92 pages]
  3. Transit Governance Review – AECOM, 2013 [75 pages]
  4. 10 year inter-municipal transit service concept – Dillon Consulting, 2014 [75 pages]

1 and 2 from the list preceded the inter-municipal transit pilot project. The recommendations influenced the founding of Niagara Region Transit, but many key recommendations were ignored, including a $4.50 fare and half-hour service during peak times.

3 was an overview and comparison of governance models. It was largely ignored.

4 included a detailed plan of how to move inter-municipal transit forward over the next ten years. It included a  service map, and a high-demand and low-demand scenario for specific costs and ridership. On the surface, the report being requested now is asking for similar things.

niagara transit potential map

10-Year Plan Map from Dillon Report


 

So how does this new report differ? Will it change anything? What new can be said after nearly 350 pages of consultants reports, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, since 2009? How likely is it that we will finally see a united public transit system in Niagara?

Those questions and more in the next “Public Transit in Niagara” post.


 

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New political landscape in Niagara – time to move on from a Conservative pet project?

There was a Federal election last week. It was of some import. Since then, there have been many articles about “WHAT THIS MEANS”. One part of one of those articles caught my eye. Maryanne Firth of the local Postmedia chains wrote about Niagara Region priorities in the wake of the election. This is particularly newsworthy since the new Liberal government has promised $125-billion for public infrastructure and St. Catharines just elected a new Liberal MP, Chris Bittle. This would seem a good time to be soliciting dollars from the Feds. Firth interviewed Niagara Region Chair Alan Caslin and he pointed out the Region’s infrastructure priorities:

caslinInfrastructure

All four of the priorities mentioned are worth looking at in depth, but the last one stood out to me. The idea of an international airport in Niagara is not a new one, but the push for international flights to Niagara-on-the-Lake continues to mystify me. Niagara has a great opportunity to receive Federal funding right now, is spending time and money on an international airport prudent?

Niagara is getting an airport?

Actually, Niagara already has two airports. The Niagara Central Airport in Pelham and the St. Catharines/Niagara District Airport (NDA) in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The NDA is located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, near the St. Catharines border and the Garden City Skyway. It currently has no regular passenger service. Its primary utility is serving small, private aircraft of no more than 15 passengers. Customs officials are on hand for aircraft landing from the United States. The NDA is occasionally used by a local charitable aviation safety organization, the Royal Canadian Air Force for refueling and also for private functions. But it’s best thought of as a private small craft airport.

The NDA is a publicly owned, controlled jointly by the municipalities of St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Each municipality provides a city councillor to the NDA Commission and elects other, non-political representatives. Including the politicians, St. Catharines has fours reps, Niagara Falls has three and NOTL has two. The airport is funded by contributions from the three municipalities, plus its own revenue. We will get to the financials of the airport in a later section.

Why is updating the airport a priority now?

The push to for investment to convert the airport to an international airport with regularly scheduled large passenger aircraft is not new. The idea has been revisited intermittently since at least 1993, but let’s look back at when the current push began to pick up steam in earnest.

2011 – Nearly $12-million is granted to the NDA for capital investments in equal installments by the Federal, Provincial and Regional governments. The money is intended for improvements to the terminal and runways.

2012 – A “bun fight” emerges between the NDA Commission and the Mayors/CAOs of the three municipalities who oversee the Commission. The Commission wants to make the airport more robust, and the oversight committee is fine with that but wants ultimate control on the amount spent (since it is coming out of their respective municipality’s budget.) [Former] St. Catharines Mayor Brian McMullan attempts to avoid hearing from the Commission when City Council debates the relevant motion. In response, somewhat controversially, [former] St. Catharines Federal MP Rick Dykstra becomes involved in this municipal issue and arranges a private meeting with the Commission where only 6 of the 12 city Councillors are invited (Siscoe, Harris, Stack and Washuta attend.) This meeting is the subject of a complaint to the Ontario Ombudsman. The ombudsman report summarizes itself with:

However, as discussed, while the meeting did not technically violate the Act, closed meetings between members of Council and Local Boards have the potential to fuel public speculation and mistrust. As such, the commission may wish to consider a more transparent and open approach to such gatherings in the future where practicable. In this case, in order to avoid public speculation, the Commission might have considered inviting members of St. Catharines Council to a public meeting of the Commission to hear its concerns, particularly since the Commission’s view on the mandate changes was already presented at public Council meetings held in Niagara Falls on November 27, 2012 and in Niagara-on-the-Lake on December 3, 2012.

2013 – Niagara Region and the Tourist Partnership fund a study on the viability of passenger service in and out of the NDA. The report surprisingly finds that the NDA’s best bet would not be domestic flights to NDA but international service from the US; but the airport would need to be upgraded to the tune of $8-million. An unnamed US airport carrier commits to twice daily service between the NDA and New York City if the airport is upgraded. However, there is a catch. The unnamed carrier requires a revenue guarantee of at least $1.2 million for the first year of operation. So…a soft commitment. “We’ll do it, as long as you promise us over a million dollars even if no passengers fly.”

2015MP Dykstra continues to seek support for expanding the airport. The NDA Commission advocates for Niagara Region to take responsibility for the NDA from the three local municipalities. The Commission sees this as part of the path to move from small private aircraft to international passenger flights. St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and NOTL all vote to have the Region assume responsibilities. The Region has yet to address the issue. Conspicuously, there is not the same interest in uploading the responsibility of Niagara’s other, similar airport, the Niagara Central Airport, to the Region. This causes some tension and the southern mayors endorse the Region taking control of both airports. (It should be noted that “triple majority” support is required to upload the NDA; given the four southern municipalities’ endorsement, that seems very unlikely to happen without also uploading the Niagara Central Airport.)

tripleMajority

History is boring. What’s the current status of the NDA?

As mentioned earlier, the NDA is funded by St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and NOTL with each contributing based on its population. According to its 2014 financial statement, the NDA is economically dependent on funding from the municipalities. The NDA generates $261,400 in revenue and costs $527,900 to operate. The municipalities help make up the operating difference by each providing $184,578, $122,235, and $21,687, respectively. The majority of the NDA’s operating costs are personnel ($316,800). In 2011, $11-million was granted to the NDA for capital investments by the Federal, Provincial and Regional governments; however, as of 2014, $10,762,139 of that is still sitting in the NDA’s bank account, unused. Despite that, the three local municipalities contributed another $112,374, $74,423, and $13,294, respectively, in 2014 in capital grants. So the NDA already has enough money in its coffers for the proposed upgrade. Curious.

But I could fly directly into and out of Niagara? Sweet!

That is what’s proposed. However, keep in mind those proposing it also suggest an airport that doesn’t currently offer passenger service, makes $17,000 a year in landing fees and operates at a de facto loss has a $25-million economic impact on Niagara.

There are five airports that currently provide most of the passenger service for those travelling to or from Niagara: two in Toronto, Buffalo, Hamilton and Niagara Falls New York. Buffalo, Hamilton and Niagara Falls New York are reasonably equidistant to the NDA for many Niagara municipalities. Furthermore, it is considerably more expensive to fly between the US and Canada due to Canada’s relatively high flying taxes. That’s why many traveling to/from the US fly out of/into Buffalo.

There’s a reason that unnamed carrier earlier asked for a revenue guarantee: there’s not an obvious unserved or under-served market here.

There has not been a lot in the way of compelling arguments for the airport upgrade. A lot of the “benefits” are stated in vague, politicianspeak. From St. Catharines Councillor Mike Britton, a Commission member and Dykstra ally:

brittonAirport

HOWEVER, the above catches an even bigger red flag that the rationale of expansion being an economic boon is dubious. St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and NOTL all lose money out of their budget every year to support the NDA, yet we are supposed to believe they’re giving up control of the NDA just as it is to start turning a profit? Dubious.

Conclusion

I believe that this was a passion (or pet) project for outgoing St. Catharines MP Rick Dykstra. I am not sure upgrading the airport will attract a carrier and not sure that even with a committed carrier providing seasonal service it would be an economic boon. I can understand why a politician may find bringing an international airport to their riding to be a feather in their cap. However, there’s a new Federal party in power, and though St. Catharines is still represented the governing party, the Liberals are likely to be loath to embrace a project championed by the Conservatives. Furthermore, the airport itself is in NOTL, which, along with Niagara Falls is represented by a Conservative. And not just any Conservative; one running for the interim leadership of the party.

In light of this, I think it’s safe to say that even if the airport project were an important one, those funds are unlikely to be granted from the new Liberal government’s infrastructure fund.

Bittle has said he’s motivated to fund “shovel ready” ready” infrastructure projects in Niagara. For an area that has lost Via Rail service, is still asking for daily GO service and has not sorted out its bus service, an international airport famously promoted by the rival political party seems like a wasteful transportation infrastructure ask.

The political landscape has changed (much to the chagrin of some local politicians). This will be a test to see if our local municipalities can be nimble enough and prudent enough to pivot its efforts to more worthy local infrastructure projects that are likely to receive funding. If the Federal government is willing to dole out cash, and we have an MP representing the governing party, we cannot waste that opportunity to improve.

Niagara’s Red Herring – Why “One Niagara” Should Be Taboo

“Everything would be better if Niagara was One Municipality instead of 12.”

This is a phrase heard regularly by those who travel in political circles or those who care to discuss the multitude of issues currently facing Niagara.

Don’t say this phrase or some version of it. Don’t believe it or some version of it. And certainly don’t vote for any politician who says this or makes it a part of their platform for election.

red her·ring (noun)

red herring is a figurative expression referring to a logical fallacy in which a clue or piece of information is or is intended to be misleading, or distracting from the actual question

 

“One Niagara” is the most popular Red Herring around Niagara these days. Politicians offer it as a cure-all. The business community presents it as a game-changer. Citizens see it as a money-saver. Usually, the “One Niagara” idea is presented by a party and accepted by all those present as Right and Good in about the same amount of time (and with a corresponding level of consideration) as drinking a Pickle Shot at Sheehan’s.

So why is this idea bandied about so frequently and examined so rarely? There are a few reasons why “One Niagara” is such a popular idea:


 

  • “It’s simple!”

    We live in an instant-gratification society and the number one thing going for the “One Niagara” idea is that it allows us all to be lazy. It should be apparent to all who care to think that there are various complex and unique issues facing Niagara and its communities. But that sort of rational thinking gets swept away when presented with a one-size-fits-all, immediate cure for what ails us. “One Niagara” let’s us believe there is a one way to make this area great again. And look, we barely had to lift a finger.


  • “It’s not MY fault”

    Not taking responsibility is a time-honoured tradition for the human race, and I’m loathe to speak against it, but it has greatly aided and abetted the One Niagara red herring. Politicians (often elected but especially prospective) love One Niagara. You’re a city councillor and you can’t balance the budget? Lack of One Niagara. You’re a regional councillor and you can’t figure out a transit system? Lack of One Niagara. Pretty much every prospective official has to spout One Niagara because, as I said, we all love it so much. “My opponent has been Mayor for four years and yet, here are, still without One Niagara. Elect me, Jimmy Blowhard: One Niagara guy.”


  • “I’m smart and engaged”

    Saying One Niagara immediately gives off the perception that an individual knows and cares about Niagara. Whether they can elaborate on the specific solutions One Niagara gives isn’t relevant. This is a person who GETS IT and further discussion of the social, economic or political issue at end is not required. Why examine the condition of the working poor when we can’t even figure out One Niagara?


  • “Governments are bloated and there are too many workers gorging themselves on the money of taxpayers”

    This will always be popular among voters and politicians alike. Even NDP-leaning politicians would never run on “More Public Sector Employees Making More Money”. Use of taxpayer funds is a popular and sensitive subject simply because it affects all taxpayers, which is almost every Canadian in one form or another. Cutting public sector jobs and salaries is always going to play with Joe Taxpayer. One Niagara feeds off this because it is easy to make the connection between amalgamating cities and amalgamating positions. From 12 mayors to 1, lickety-split savings. It would be terrible to find out this thinking was flawed, wouldn’t it? Let’s go to the Toronto Star from earlier this year for more:

What about the idea that amalgamation will allow us to cut down on bloated government spending and pass that savings onto residents or into improving services? From the Toronto Star in January 2014: “It was dubbed the Common Sense Revolution — Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris’s 1995 campaign to slash the province’s bloated public sector through massive municipal government restructuring, to the tune of $250 million in taxpayer savings. But new analysis has found that while amalgamation technically decreased the number of municipalities in Ontario — down from 850 to 445 — and 23 per cent of elected official positions were axed, more people than ever are working in Ontario’s municipal governments. “The conclusion is very strong: amalgamation didn’t reduce the size of municipal government,” said Timothy Cobban, political science professor at Western University and lead researcher.” (http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2014/01/13/amalgamation_brought_fewer_ontario_cities_but_more_city_workers_report_finds.html)


Here’s the thing about One Niagara that’s the real kicker though: it is a horrible idea. The worst part about the idea isn’t that it is lazy, or that it allows politicians to pass the buck or that it curtails discussions of actual problems and solutions, or even that it is based on flawed logic. The worst part of “everything would be better if Niagara was One Municipality instead of 12” is that it is wrong.

Proponents of amalgamating Niagara into one city will often point to Hamilton or Ottawa. Both of these cities have amalgamated with area municipalities to form One City in the last 13 years. The process for both was similar: an already-existing Regional Municipality consisting of lower-tier municipalities was absorbed by its largest urban municipality to form a single-tiered municipality. Here’s the problem with these comparisons: Niagara doesn’t have a single, large urban municipality that the entire region revolves around. Niagara has three urban centres of a similar size in St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Welland/Port. Furthermore, none of the “disappearing” municipalities from Ottawa/Hamilton had a strong tourism identity/economy like Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake do. How many tourists travel to Ancaster and Smith Falls a year? These are the two most obvious reasons why we aren’t like Ottawa and Hamilton, leaving alone issues surrounding population density and Niagara’s unique geography (far-flung cities, the Welland Canal and the escarpment, for example.)

Amalgamation was a far more obvious choice in Ottawa and Hamilton, single urban centres that absorbed their supporting surrounding communities. And guess what? In spite of their more apparent rationale for amalgamation, they have hardly been successful.  From the Rural Council, representing the communities lost in amalgamation: “Amalgamation: The Costly Experiment That Failed” (http://www.ruralcouncil.ca/amalgamation.htm). In Hamilton: “Singing The Amalgamation Blues” (http://www.raisethehammer.org/blog/872/). I could post links all day that mention the same problems, but these two give a succinct idea of the effects of amalgamation in those communities.

Ok, but what about smaller communities that amalgamated like Kingston, Central Elgin or Chatham-Kent? If Niagara isn’t like Ottawa and Hamilton, maybe its amalgamation will succeed rather than fail. Nope: since their amalgamation 17 years ago, citizens have strongly responded that their tax dollars are being used worse than before amalgamation:

“Contrary to the provincial expectation that amalgamations would result in more efficient service delivery, in every jurisdiction the majority of respondents felt that the value they were receiving for their taxes declined since amalgamation” (http://www.cjrs-rcsr.org/archives/26-1/siegel.pdf).

Citizens also have generally been more against amalgamation than for it in all three places.


 

Amalgamation has failed in every municipality it has impacted. It will fail here. We won’t see lower taxes, we won’t see less spending on politician/public sector salaries, we won’t see higher employment rates and we won’t see improved transit as a result of amalgamation. One Niagara would only make our issues worse, not better.

Everyone suffers from confirmation bias, myself included. So it’d be fair for you to think that I just found the sources that told me One Niagara was bad because that’s the conclusion I wanted. That’d be fair. So look into the issue yourself. Take the time to be able to back it up before spouting One Niagara.

As for me, I won’t ever be voting for anyone who says One Niagara is our solution; they either: 1. haven’t done the research 2.  Have done the research and are not competent or 3. Are simply trying to pass on finding real solutions to issues.

Let’s expect more Niagara. Let’s focus on real solutions and not fall victim to a red herring.