By Renato Pedreschi and Mariana Winzer
Niagara College Student Administrative Council (NCSAC) and the Niagara Region are in a race to improve transit services for students as compounding issues have left their tires spinning.
Not only is it the first year that the Niagara Region is in charge of the regional transit system, the unexpected increase in enrollment to NC put a strain on the developing bus service due to a disproportionate number of students who live in Niagara Falls.
“It’s the perfect storm,” says Steve Kosh, executive director of NCSAC.
“This is first year that the Region has actually been allowed to deal with transit… We got more students than expected and the majority of students are living in Niagara Falls.”
Unlike many metropolitan areas in the province, the Niagara Region is just taking the training wheels off of their regional transit system.
Until now, the ability to take public transit from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Welland and back was only available to students with a college bus pass.
“We had a stronger regional system than the region had itself,” says Kosh.
The transition to a regional transit system included the consolidation of routes that in the past were especially useful to students. The routes consolidated included the #21 (Niagara Falls to Welland) and #27 (St. Catharines to Welland). Regional buses now stop at both Niagara College campuses. The 40/45 route includes a stop at the Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) campus and the 60/65 and 70/75 routes now include stops at the Welland Campus.
According to NCSAC, the college experienced an increase in enrollment of 800 to 1,000 students more than what was expected. In a college of 11,000 students, a sudden and unexpected increase of almost 10 percent is striking.
“For the number of students we need to move, our students weren’t paying enough for transit,” Kosh said, explaining that due to the increasing surge of students every year and the amount students pay for transportation, the college ultimately began losing money.
During the past five years, the college went from losing $40,000 to $50,000 per year, to losing almost half a million dollars in 2017 in transportation fees.
The imbalance of students who are able to walk to school and the students who need to commute to school affected the equilibrium of financial needs towards student transit.
“Ten years ago the ridership was 50/50. The mix that is coming to the college now is no longer 1/1, it’s three or four to one”
The vast majority of new students are from, or live in, Niagara Falls. Of the 11,000 students attending Niagara College more than 4,100 of those are taking the bus in from Niagara Falls.
To address the problem, NCSAC chartered two private buses to bridge the gap between the demand of riders and the availability of buses. As of Sept. 20, one bus will pick up students from Niagara Falls and take them to the Welland campus and the other will take students to the NOTL campus through private stops. These chartered busses are a temporary solution as NCSAC and the Region are working on a more permanent solution.
The first step toward a solution is assessing the availability of buses and drivers in the region. It’s a task easier said than done for a region that has never had to work together on transit.
In a statement to Niagara News, the Region echoed their partnership with NCSAC.
“Niagara Region Transit is working with your NCSAC and college administration to identify student pressures and ensure we are collaboratively seeking opportunities to improve the system.”
More updates are expected soon as NCSAC and the Region are currently formulating a plan for the rest of the this and subsequent years.