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May. 21, 2022 | Saturday
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NOTL wants integrated regional transit, but opposes assessment-based funding
Matt Robinson (bottom left) presents to NOTL council regarding Niagara regional transit integration. (Sourced)

NOTL councillors are keen on the prospect of an integrated transit system across the entire Niagara region, but have no interest in using an assessment-based formula to pay for it.

Because home prices in Niagara-on-the-Lake are among the highest in the region, assessment-based funding could mean the town would be helping to foot the bill for larger municipalities like St. Catharines and Niagara Falls.

Policing costs are assessment-based and NOTL pays a lot more for that service than it would based on population or how much it is used.

Councillors met last week with Matt Robinson, director at GO Transit’s implementation office, to discuss the prospect of improved region-wide transit.

Under the plan, municipal transit systems would be united under a transit commission with a regional mandate. All current municipal transit assets would be handed over to the regional commission at no further cost to taxpayers, according to the presentation. 

The idea of regional transit integration was unanimously lauded by councillors, with particular emphasis on the economic benefits from increased tourism, employment opportunities and ease of access for residents to travel between municipalities and regions directly from their homes.  

In an interview Tuesday, Lord Mayor Betty Disero also noted the positive aspect of having to pay “one fee to go anywhere in the Niagara region.” 

But an assessment-based model, rather than one based on how much it is used, is "unfair," Coun. Allan Bisback told GO Transit.

Councillors fear that, although NOTL has one of the lowest populations of the region's 12 municipalities, the town could end up being the third-largest contributor to the program, according to a staff report. 

“What will happen, for our one bus that runs up and down Highway 55, we go from about half a million dollars a year to $2.5 million a year in transit payments,” Disero told The Lake Report.

She said she fears transit costs for NOTL will increase while costs for “other municipalities with much larger populations are going to go down.”  

Councillors made it clear that they will not support the project if the funding model is not changed.  

“If this becomes yet another way that Niagara-on-the-Lake gets dinged in an unfair way, economically speaking," Coun. Clare Cameron said.

"And if we have to wrangle our own local budget to accommodate a regional initiative, yet again, (then) this is going to be very problematic for anyone on this council or in this community to support. And that would be such a shame because transit is such a good initiative,” she told the meeting.

The town also had problems about municipal representation on the commission. 

The proposed commission would have nine voting members: five from regional councils and four skill-based or public members. The five regional council members would consist of one each from Welland, St. Catharines and Niagara Falls, and two chosen to represent the rest of the municipalities as a group, including NOTL, according to the presentation. 

“If we are going to pay the third-highest bill we should have (better) representation on the commission,” Disero said. 

“We want to make sure that all municipalities, not just Niagara-on-the-Lake, but particularly Niagara-on-the-Lake, does have representation on this commission.” 

Councillors were also concerned that a hoped-for GO train stop in Glendale would not be a part of the project, meaning that NOTL would get even less out of a regional transit initiative for the town's cost.  

“When are we scheduled to get GO Transit at Glendale?” Disero asked Robinson during the meeting. 

He said that would happen “once (Glendale) starts to build out. I think that’s where the opportunity to locate the train station in that vicinity will certainly come about.” 

Disero said, “Great. So, so far there’s nothing on the books, that’s what you’re saying?” Robinson agreed.

The presentation was made so GO Transit officials could collect feedback from Niagara municipalities before the final plan is presented. 

 “We’ve instructed our staff to go and talk (with GO transit). And, while we support the principle of a regional transit system, there are some things that need to be worked out,” said Disero.