Ni­a­gara’s GO train ex­pan­sion de­railed?

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - Opinion -

The dream of a GO Train ex­pan­sion to Ni­a­gara turned cloudy last month, thanks to a new im­ple­men­ta­tion process be­ing in­tro­duced by the prov­ince.

GO ex­pan­sion to Ni­a­gara has been a long-held goal for lo­cal lead­ers of all po­lit­i­cal stripes, who see it as a driver for eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, con­nect­ing Ni­a­gara to the GTA through quicker, more re­li­able and more com­fort­able pub­lic tran­sit.

The GO ex­pan­sion was a key com­po­nent of for­mer re­gional chair Alan Caslin’s plans. Not only was he as­sur­ing ev­ery­one the train ser­vice would be run­ning by 2023, he was push­ing for the ex­pan­sion to be in place by 2021, in time for the Canada Sum­mer Games.

But late last week, a let­ter from Metrolinx, the or­ga­ni­za­tion which op­er­ates GO, said the “de­liv­ery process” of new GO sta­tions — in­clud­ing the planned sta­tion in Grimsby — has been halted. The let­ter, cit­ing a re­cent state­ment by Minister of Trans­porta­tion Jeff Yurek, said the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment is seek­ing third-party in­vest­ment to build new GO sta­tions.

Gov­ern­ment sources told The Stan­dard that adopt­ing a new “mar­ket based” ap­proach to build­ing sta­tions was an­nounced as a pri­or­ity last week with lit­tle fan­fare or ad­vance no­tice. Un­der­pin­ning the idea is the re­al­ity the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment no longer wants to fund, own and op­er­ate GO sta­tions and wants pri­vate sec­tor busi­ness as partners and sta­tions in­te­grated with com­mer­cial and res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ment, the sources say.

Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment sup­port for GO ex­pan­sion to Ni­a­gara has al­ways seemed some­what cool. Through­out the pro­vin­cial elec­tion in the spring, ques­tions swirled. Dur­ing an April visit to Wel­land in the midst of the cam­paign, PC Leader Doug Ford said he’d “want to re­view the plan,” be­fore sup­port­ing it. He later clar­i­fied his po­si­tion as one of sup­port, but un­cer­tainty as to his com­mit­ment to Ni­a­gara GO has been there from the out­set.

In Oc­to­ber, a pri­vate mem­ber’s mo­tion by Ni­a­gara Cen­tre NDP MPP Jeff Burch, sup­port­ing Ni­a­gara GO, re­ceived all-party sup­port. The is­sue ap­peared set­tled.

Now, the fate of GO ser­vice to the penin­sula looks shaky.

The of­fice of Ni­a­gara West MPP Sam Ooster­hoff, who last week didn’t re­spond to in­ter­view re­quests from The Stan­dard, is­sued a me­dia re­lease Mon­day, stress­ing the gov­ern­ment talk­ing points but not re­ally an­swer­ing any of the ques­tions the new Metrolinx plan raises. “This is good news for tax­pay­ers here in On­tario,” said Ooster­hoff in the re­lease, point­ing to sav­ings that can be had by hav­ing third-party en­ti­ties pay for the new sta­tions. He also made the claim that in­volv­ing third par­ties will speed up the process, since sev­eral new sta­tions can be built at the same time.

But key is­sues re­main un­re­solved.

What hap­pens to GO ex­pan­sion to Ni­a­gara if the sta­tion sites, which have al­ready been iden­ti­fied, are un­suit­able for multi-use de­vel­op­ment? The Ni­a­gara GO pro­ject is now in the late plan­ning phases for sta­tion de­sign. The pro­posed sta­tions in the cur­rent GO Ni­a­gara plan, ap­proved un­der the pre­vi­ous Liberal gov­ern­ment, were de­signed with the as­sump­tion they were go­ing to be en­tirely built and funded with pub­lic money and they may not be com­pat­i­ble with de­vel­op­ment be­yond the sta­tions and park­ing lots.

Will new sites have to be found?

And what hap­pens if no pri­vate sec­tor in­vestor comes for­ward to fund these sta­tions and the re­lated projects? How will the sta­tions be paid for? Will the prov­ince go ahead with the ex­pan­sion any­way or can­cel it al­to­gether?

We don’t know be­cause no­body has been will­ing to an­swer these very ba­sic ques­tions.

GO ser­vice to Ni­a­gara may not be dead. But un­til some­one ad­dresses these is­sues, we have to as­sume hopes the train will ar­rive on time in 2023 are well off the rails.

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