CLOSEUP: Rallying to save a Welland Canal ferryBy Don Fraser, QMI Agency
It’s an enduring Niagara crossing that only takes three minutes.
With a growl, the pontoon swoops across the Welland Canal and completes a passage that has continued for 40 years.
‘Bridge-It’s outboard motors ease into a Port Robinson dock, and two passengers in cycling gear shuffle out.
The canal link, however, is in peril after an agreement to keep it running expires next year.
“It’s nice to have, because there’s really no other way for us to get around and over the canal on this side,” said Brett Peacock of Welland, one of the disembarking cyclists.
“Ending it would be an inconvenience.”
Louis Savona of the nearby Savona’s Grocery and Postal Service is blunt about the prospect of the ferry’s demise.
“It’s wrong to take it away from us, we want it to stay,” Savona said. “It was put there in lieu of the bridge.
“There are a lot of cyclists that use it, but a lot of the people in the town also use the service, too.”
St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. spokesman Andrew Bogora confirms their 25-year agreement with the City of Thorold to operate the Port Robinson pedestrian and bicycle ferry expires March 31, 2016.
The agreement does not include any provision for an extension.
Bogora says if a qualified party steps forward and offers to run the ferry “on an independent basis, with its own source of funding,” the Seaway is open to “negotiating a lease for the use of the canal bank and the adjoining portion of land to permit such an operation.”
In a report to Thorold council in April, the town’s chief administrative officer Frank Fabiano advised council the contract not be renewed, should funding from other sources such as Niagara Region not be approved.
Meanwhile, ferry supporters are redoubling efforts to keep it running — and they’re turning to Niagara Region for a lifeline.
The bridge that once served as a Port Robinson crossing was destroyed in Aug. 25, 1974, when the ore-carrier Steelton crashed into and destroyed it.
That community was cut in half, with that situation relieved somewhat by the creation in 1975 of a free, ferry link between both sides of the village at Bridge St. that connects to Port Robinson Rd.
Canal crossers can otherwise also use the nearby Allanburg Bridge or Main St. tunnel in Welland.
To advocate for its continuation, ferry stakeholders are organizing an event to support ‘Bridge-It’ on Aug. 25 for NIagara Region politicians and staff only. At the ferry site, they plan to make the case for financial support to representatives from Niagara Region.
Nancy Waters, a Port Robinson resident and member of the community group Port Robinson Proud, said Thorold is asking for Niagara Region’s help, as the ferry is part of the Region’s master bike plan, a tourism draw “and is a huge part of the cycling tourism here.
“There are a lot of reasons why the Region would want to get on board,” Waters said. “And without someone coming on board with the City of Thorold, the ferry will be no more.
“We also have residents on both sides that use the ferry back and forth to get across,” Waters adds. “So also for our residents, it’s a vital link in the summer months, and it brings business into the community with the cyclists.”
Fabiano said the City now pays primarily administrative, insurance and other in-kind expenses at about $20,000 annually, with the operation of the ferry costing roughly $70,000 annually for the Seaway.
Thorold operates the ferry through the Niagara employment services company Landon Morgan. In an e-mail, a Landon Morgan representative said the firm manages the ferry service staffing and payroll for Thorold, and it is not involved in “discussions regarding the potential transfer to the Region.”
The town's CAO says a new co-partner is needed, preferably the Region, as it appears the Seaway is through when the contract expires.
“It has become ... a cycling tourism entity now, although it’s true Port Robinson people do take advantage of it,” said Fabiano. “The Region should be the lead in this, for sure.
That said, “the city will be willing to continue what we had been doing all along.”
Thorold mayor Ted Luciani estimates perhaps 6,000 cyclists and at least 2,000 locals make the ferry transit each year.
“We’re hoping (the Region) is going to come out with a positive report,” said Luciani.
“It’s become a tourist attraction and it’s a shortcut that crosses directly to Chippawa,” he said. “It’s now very viable to keep the ferry.
“Because it’s become more tourist and cyclist oriented, I feel the Region should step up.”
Luciani said Thorold’s staff report on the matter will be presented to Niagara Region council some time in September.
The mayor concedes securing funding could be a battle, as Niagara Region Council appears reluctant to take on any new business.
Henry D’Angelo, a former Thorold Mayor and current Niagara Region councillor, thinks the Region should offer to help.
“I think it is a regional piece of transportation we have,” he said. D’Angelo adds the bridge that was once there linked a regional road before it was knocked down.
“When Thorold made an agreement with the Seaway for ferry service, it was for local residents but subsequently, more and more residents of Niagara and local cycling tourists are using it …it’s a safe way for them to cross the canal,” D’Angelo said, adding the ferry is also part of the Greater Niagara Circle Route of mostly off-road paved trails.
“I think Thorold has a role in this, but the region also has a role; it’s a big component for all of Niagara.”
St. Catharines Regional Councillor Bruce Timms is a strong supporter of cycling in the region, the circle route and its tourism draw.
Keeping the ferry going with a Thorold-Niagara Region partnership is imperative, he said.
“I am supporting the Region’s participation in this operation of the ferry,” Timms said. “It’s an important link to the Niagara Falls tourism area.
“The ferry is essential in emphasizing Port Robinson to Chippawa that links the canal to the Niagara Falls tourist area — and it provides an opportunity to make the canal a day trip, by bicycle, for the Falls tourist,” he said.
“There’s an opportunity for tourists to add an extra day, to see how those great freighters get around that great cataract at Niagara Falls.”
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