Niagara inter-transit system gaining ground

Dave Kewley Special to The Hamilton Spectator Nov. 29

The Niagara region is a renowned tourism hot spot, a great place to live and has some of the best tender fruit land in Canada.

It's also the only regional municipality in Ontario that doesn't have an inter-municipal transit system.

This could soon change, however, if a new transit initiative that's in the works can pass muster with the newly elected regional council.

"This would provide daily service from Grimsby into St. Catharines where passengers could transfer onto buses heading for Niagara Falls, Welland and Niagara-on-the-Lake," says Bob Johnson, associate director of transportation services for the Niagara Region.

Johnson is a member of a special steering committee that has been researching the logistics of providing two levels of service for Niagara residents -- traditional inter-municipality bus service between main urban areas and specialized transit service that runs door-to-door for disabled persons.

Currently there are existing municipal bus systems in St. Catharines-Thorold, Niagara Falls and Welland as well as a limited service in the Town of Fort Erie.

The three larger services all provide transportation to Brock University, a common meeting ground that members of the steering committee see as the hub for the proposed expansion to link routes from Grimsby through Lincoln to St. Catharines and on to the far corners of the region such as Fort Erie, Port Colborne and Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The only two municipalities not to be included in this service are West Lincoln and Wainfleet, both large rural areas with sparse populations.

The study is based on public consultation and meetings in 2000 and 2001. The initial plan was endorsed by regional council in October 2002.

Johnson says the steering committee has been quietly visiting the 12 municipal councils of Niagara to explain the details of the two proposed services and has encountered "overwhelming support at the local level."

Estimates presented to Grimsby council indicated that the specialized service could be provided at an annual cost to the region of between $375,000 and $450,000. The first phase of conventional transit service would cost between $250,000 and $400,000. Grimsby's share of the cost was estimated at $22,299 for conventional transit and $22,753 for specialized transit, for a total of $45,052 a year.

All 12 municipalities will be eligible for the specialized service for the disabled and Johnson says it will be based largely on the experience of Mobility Niagara, a service for the disabled that operated for less than a year in 1999-2000.

Johnson says that service was a victim of its own success, because the region was not authorized to support it financially, but was picking up the deficit, until the shortfall got so big the region had to go to the service agencies such as the March of Dimes and the Red Cross to ask them to pick up the tab.

Mobility Niagara had established a zone system so that a person travelling from Grimsby to St. Catharines would pay $7.50 and an additional $7.50 to travel the next zone to Niagara Falls.

"If we get approval for this, we will hire a person to work out all the details including fares and zones," the associate director says.

He adds that full seven-day service will be important during the tourist season to get seasonal workers to centres such as Niagara Falls.

The steering committee will next meet sometime in January to iron out the details. Then sometime in the next month it will present its recommendations to regional council.

"When this program wins council approval, I'm confident it will become a very successful system," he says.

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