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Region approves ferry funding

By Maryanne Firth, St. Catharines Standard

A round of applause erupted in regional council chambers Thursday night after funding was approved to buoy Port Robinson ferry.

Local residents and users groups filled the gallery, as they have at several other meetings where the ferry service has been discussed, to find out the fate of its operation.

Following a lengthy discussion during the budget review committee meeting, councillors opted to provide City of Thorold a $33,250 grant to cover half of the $66,500 operating cost. The other half of the cost is expected to be funded by Thorold.

The Region will also provide up to $33,250 to expand the ferry service to include additional weekend hours.

A total $66,500 will be contributed by Niagara Region each year in 2016 and 2017 to allow for the service, which has carried passengers across the Welland Canal for the past 40 years, to continue. The Region’s budget, which includes the ferry cost, still needs to receive final approval at a future council meeting.

The service has been funded federally through St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. since the Port Robinson bridge was destroyed by a passing ship in 1974.

The agreement between the Seaway and City of Thorold, however, expires March 31, 2016. As a result, Thorold has asked Niagara Region to take on the cost.

Thorold Mayor Ted Luciani said the city has contributed about $13,000 in insurance and $9,000 in in kind services toward ferry operations annually.

“We’ve always put money toward this,” he said.

St. Catharines councillor Brian Heit took issue with the fact the Region seemed to be eyed as the permanent funder of the ferry’s operations. He wanted to ensure a time-frame was included in the ask so the Region did not indefinitely take responsibility for an unmandated service moving forward.

Fellow St. Catharines councillor Bruce Timms, who put forward the motion that was ultimately passed, felt a two-year window would provide the time needed for a new agreement to be put in place between the Seaway and Thorold.

A need has been identified, he said, for expanded operating hours to better serve both local residents and tourists. Service had previously been reduced due to budget limitations.

The ferry, which operates from May to October, sees between 4,500 and 6,000 passengers per season, with about two thirds of its riders crossing with bicycles.

Providing Thorold with only half the operating costs encourages the city to have “more skin in the game,” Timms said.

Work still needs to be done to determine how much those extended hours will cost, St. Catharines councillor Tim Rigby said.

“It does make sense for us to absorb the cost for extended hours for tourism,” he said.

“One will argue that we’re not in the tourism business, but yes, yes we are.”

Rigby was still baffled that Thorold or the Region had to fork out any funds to pay for the ferry’s operation. He felt the federal government should be covering the cost.

“I’m sure there was insurance coverage and payment (when the bridge was destroyed),” he said, adding he’s unsure why the federal government is not paying up.

Niagara Falls councillor Bob Gale felt there were other options that should have been considered to help fund the service, including the introduction of a user fee or the potential for sponsorship or bringing a private partner on board.

Public works commissioner Ron Tripp warned taking on operational costs does come with some risk, particularly concerning capital investment in the vessel, docks and ramps.

Staff estimated those investments could reach more than $700,000, he said.

The existing ferry operation agreement puts the obligation of capital investment in the hands of the Seaway, he said. While negotiations for a new lease agreement are underway, the terms have yet to be settled, he added.

No improvements to the vessel or the docks are expected to be required for several years, Timms said, adding they should remain the responsibility of the Seaway.

The motion was carried in an 18-10 vote.

HOW THEY VOTED: YES: Augustyn, Annunziata, Barrick, Baty, Burroughs, Campion, D’Angela, Darte, Diodati, Edgar, Jeffs, Joyner, Luciani, Maloney, Quirk, Rigby, Timms and Volpatti. NO: Bentley, Easton, Gale, Grenier, Heit, Hodgson, MacGregor, Marshall, Maves and Petrowski
Last Modified: December 19, 2015 05:03 PM
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