The municipalities of Niagara Falls, St. Catharines and Welland moved a step closer to a regional transit system this week when St. Catherines City Council voted to endorse a plan to combine services in the three cities.

Since 2011 Niagara Region, the upper-tier government which includes the three lower-tier municipal governments, has granted funds to Niagara Falls Transit, St. Catharines Transit and Welland Transit in a pilot project to allow the three bus systems to work together. In September 2014, Niagara Region voted to extend the pilot until spring 2017.

A memorandum of understanding and business model would be the next steps if the other two cities endorse the plan. A regional system could possibly serve other smaller centres like Grimsby, Niagara-on-the-Lake and Port Colborne, if a cost-sharing model could be developed–for example, towns could designate a percentage of their transportation budgets towards regional transit if they don’t already have their own services. Transit providers in the three systems say they already have a good working relationship, meeting on a regular basis and discussing future changes with a joint committee. The larger municipalities already have arrangements to provide services to the smaller centres of Port Colborne, Thorold and Fort Erie.

The pilot project has been successful, with many residents voicing their support of intermunicipal bus service to local councillors. Niagara Region’s motion to extend the pilot by 20 months passed by a vote of 26-1. The Region’s role in a future intermunicipal transit service is still unclear, because it must have the support of a triple majority–a majority of those on council, a majority of local councils (seven of 12) that represent a majority of eligible voters, which seems unlikely. Advocates of a regional system include the Niagara Poverty Reduction Network, who say that a single-fare system across municipalities is critical for low-income communities. The long-term goal of system and fare integration seems to be the extension of LRT service to Niagara Region.

Other regions in Canada are also moving towards regional transit services–Edmonton and St. Albert are considering joining their services in order to speed up a proposed LRT extension to St. Albert. There are currently eight transit systems operating independently in Alberta’s Capital Region. Toronto is slowly moving towards a regional system with the introduction of Presto cards across the region allowing fare integration between the eight existing systems, the provincial priority of 15-minute all-day service on the region’s GO train system, and service improvements leading to a 10-minute frequent transit network in Toronto.

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