A disjointed special meeting of Pelham Town Council last Monday, Feb. 25, dealt with Niagara Region’s Transit Governance Study, which aims to launch a fully integrated regional transit system by late 2022. As laid out in a presentation during council’s Feb. 16 meeting, the proposal would see Pelham face a 500 percent increase— to over $1 million in cost— for transit by 2029.
Unsurprisingly, this prospect did not sit well with the Mayor or council, and members present last Thursday used the special meeting to further criticize the plan.
Neither Mayor Marvin Junkin or Ward 3 Councillor Lisa Haun attended the meeting. Junkin was attending a virtual Regional Council meeting held at the same time; Haun’s absence was unexplained. Ward 1 Councillor Marianne Stewart, currently in rotation as Deputy Mayor, chaired the meeting.
Councillor Bob Hildebrandt opened the gathering by again expressing doubts about public transit in general, saying a “paradigm shift” is underway with people working from home during the pandemic.
“On my street for instance, I took a survey,” Hildebrandt said. “Thirteen homes, 36 residents. Of those people, 13 used to go to work. It’s four now.”
Hildebrandt cited a statistic predicting Niagara’s population is expected to grow 25 percent in the next 20 years, and provided a somewhat simplistic conclusion that echoed the “white flight” exodus, identified by some sociologists, from Brampton and other GTA communities, where former mainstream ethnicities—not necessarily only white— are not comfortable finding themselves in the minority.
“Immigration is going to come to the big cities like Toronto, and Toronto’s going to move out to the Golden Horseshoe. So, I don’t think the people that are moving here are looking for transit. They’re looking for the lifestyle that we have.”
What appears to be the fatal flaw in the Region’s proposal is the idea that relatively wealthier municipalities such as Pelham and Niagara-on-the-Lake pay more per capita because of their higher property values.
I don’t think the people that are moving here are looking for transit. They’re looking for the lifestyle that we have.
“We’re running at about 1.5 rides per service hour,” Councillor Wayne Olson said of Pelham’s current transit usage. “The fixed-route bus thing is not tenable. I think we’ll end up bearing the costs, and the fact it’s based upon housing values means that we have a desirable place to live, we don’t have the social issues — at least the visible social issues — as other places, but we’re going to end up paying for everybody else’s.”
Ward 2 Councillor John Wink urged more foresight, but agreed the proposed price model was too steep.
“We do have to look forward a little bit. There will be more demand for public transit as more and more people occupy townhouses and apartment buildings,” he said. “Yeah, we’re going get people in the million-dollar homes, but we’re going to be getting people in 1,100-1,200 square-foot apartments and townhouses who will require public transit. I would never support the current cost, perhaps there’s something we can go back and say we’re prepared, but it’s a far lower level, and if they’re not agreeable to that, we’re not going to play … the Region has to sharpen their pencil and sharpen it hard.”
Olson then cited potentially incorrect numbers regarding usage of the current transit system by local students headed to Brock University and Niagara College.
“It’s really not proving to be that useful a service,” he asserted, citing 1.3 percent of the ridership are such students.
CAO David Cribbs responded, saying that student numbers are redundant at the moment due to those institutions having their campuses closed due to COVID-19.
“With all due respect … I’m surprised there’s even one percent of people going to closed buildings,” the CAO said.
“These numbers were from 2018 and 2019!” Olson interjected. “That was before the pandemic, as far as I know.”
Cribbs replied that those numbers didn’t add up.
“Councillor Olson, if you stood at the MCC you’d have seen plenty of people getting on buses,” he said.
With all due respect … I’m surprised there’s even one percent of people going to closed buildings
“The source is ‘Students On The Move’ survey, done by Niagara Region and Brock, written and presented by Niagara Region,” Olson retorted. “I stand by my source.”
At that point, Director of Recreation, Culture and Wellness Vickie vanRavenswaay jumped in to say that 2018 would have included Pelham’s own bus, which would not be cited in the Region’s stats.
With the meeting headed off the rails, Cribbs and Town Clerk Nancy Bozzato reminded members that the point of the special gathering was to provide feedback to the Region on the proposal, as they are still in the consultancy stage.
Yet on the procedural matter of simply receiving the report—which made no recommendations and did not commit the Town to action— neither Hildebrandt or Olson would commit, and voted no. It passed 3-2 anyway.
The other concern lay with representation on the proposed future transit board. Regardless of financial commitment, it’s unlikely Pelham would have a permanent seat on the board, which would be dominated by the three largest cities in Niagara.
According to statistics cited by Olson, St. Catharines (60 percent), Niagara Falls (26 percent), and Welland (nine percent) make up 95 percent of the Region’s transit ridership.
“Why on earth would we really expect to have much say in this system?” Olson said.
Adding to the confusion, Wink then asked if this meant council would not support the commission aspect of the proposal.
“For clarity, all you’d be saying is you don’t like a full commission,” Cribbs said. “They are hoping for some constructive feedback.”
The CAO added that the Region had been working on the transit proposal for eight years.
“How many Pelham people were involved in the eight-year project?” Ward 2 Councillor Ron Kore asked.
“To my knowledge, none directly,” the CAO said.
“So, point taken,” Kore stridently replied.
Stewart asked for clarity that no commitment was being made. At this point Bozzato shared her Zoom screen with members, and a motion she drew up unsolicited that read council wouldn’t support the idea because it feels it won’t sufficiently be represented.
That motion passed.
Olson then tabled an idea he had brought up before, in which the Town could reject the transit public transit option and instead partner with ride-sharing service Uber, mirroring a similar setup in the Town of Innisfil, south of Barrie.
“I don’t predict success with this, so I would like to see a study with the Uber model,” Olson said. “We still do need transit.”
Cribbs advised waiting on that, as the Region’s transit plan will ultimately be subject to a “triple majority” vote where Pelham could have no say in the matter— although it’s unclear if the Town would be obligated to participate financially.
I don’t predict success with this, so I would like to see a study with the Uber model
“If enough municipalities that represent enough population of Niagara vote to make this happen, then it will happen over our objection,” the CAO said. We may not have control over our destiny in that regard.” He reiterated that the Region is still in the consultancy stage, and that concerns from the likes of Pelham are supposed to be addressed before any vote.
Kore asked Cribbs if the votes of St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Welland alone would be enough to carry the proposal.
Cribbs said no.
“They have the population, but they are only three out of  municipalities,” he said, adding that Niagara’s mid-size municipalities would also need to support.
However, Niagara-on-the-Lake has already endorsed the proposal, and the suburban nature of Thorold in relation to St. Catharines may make it likely they would follow suit.
“It’s possible it would be the north against the south, really?” Kore said, chuckling.
“Civil War,” said Wink.
“Can we secede?” said Stewart, referring to the slave-holding Confederate States of America breaking away from the U.S. in 1861, sparking a conflict that led to some 600,000 deaths.
“A kinder, gentler, Niagara-style civil war,” Cribbs added.
Separate to the integration proposal is the matter of Pelham’s current on-demand transit system. The Town is expected to sign on to the ongoing Regional pilot project for another year, but Hildebrandt voiced concern that staying with the pilot would mean signing on to the commission model. Wink said he was concerned about the cost of extending the current system.
Cribbs said it would be a “gargantuan amount of work” to find an alternative, and that the cost to Pelham is currently $178,800 — an amount that would more than double if the Town ran a bus system on its own.
Cribbs and vanRavenswaay encouraged councillors to provide feedback and concerns regarding the existing system. Hildebrandt again complained about technical issues with the service.
“Niagara Region Transit for anyone without a smartphone is a disaster,” he said.
Staff was directed to report back on existing service concerns at the April 6 meeting. Treasurer Teresa Quinlin said that Pelham will receive $53,000 from the gas tax this year, and $100,000 from a community transit grant, leaving the actual cost to the Town just shy of $26,000.
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