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Citizens push for transit and trail investments

Several groups urged Thunder Bay’s city council to invest in public transportation in the 2023 budget, including a waterfront trail, a protected bike lane along Memorial, and an affordable transit pilot.

THUNDER BAY — Dozens of residents showed up at city hall on Thursday for a consultation meeting on the city’s 2023 budget, with most calling for investments in trails, bike lanes, and public transit.  

Those requests came as the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce also urged council to dramatically slash a proposed tax levy hike of 6.2 per cent in the budget, calling for service reductions to do so if necessary.

The chamber found support Thursday from three residents who called for cuts and staffing reductions, as well as Mayor Ken Boshcoff, who questioned if the city could leave more positions vacant when retirements occur.

The vast majority of those who attended Thursday’s public meeting, however, were there seeking investments in public services and infrastructure.

Rotary group urges waterfront trail commitment

Members of a Rotary group called on the city to put money on the table to spur progress on a plan for a waterfront trail uniting Thunder Bay’s north and south ends, though its ask would not impact the tax levy.

The city has tentatively sketched out a long-term vision for a 13.5-kilometre multi-use trail running from Fisherman’s Park in Current River south to the Jackknife Bridge, via Mission Marsh.

The Waterfront Trail Rotary Community Action Team (WTRCAT) was formed to encourage the city to follow through on the plan.

The group has so far worked with other agencies to fund a tourism impact study currently being carried out by Deloitte, and says it will also aid in fundraising but needs to see the city make a firm commitment first.

The organization has outlined its vision in a flyover video showing the proposed route.

Residents can also read more about the group’s pitch in its visual presentation to council.

On Thursday, representatives asked the city to make three commitments this year: Earmark existing reserve funds for waterfront trail expansion to leverage provincial and federal investment; commit to making the waterfront trail a priority in council’s 2023 to 2026 strategic plan; and include the project in the city’s 10-year capital budget forecast.

Rotarian Warren Philp pitched the project as one that, like spending to develop Prince Arthur’s Landing, would ultimately bring larger benefits.

“I don’t think the Thunder Bay Art Gallery or Science North would be looking at the locations they’re looking at if the city wouldn’t have made that initial investment," he said. "We’d like to think the waterfront trail expansion provides a new foundation for more investments, private and public.”

The group said it’s asking the city to set aside a meaningful level of funding that wouldn't be spent until matching commitments were made by the province and feds, to help incentivize support from higher levels of government.

They propose allocating the funds from the city’s Renew Thunder Bay fund, which has a balance of just over $17 million.

“Until the city sits down with its provincial and federal partners to make that initial commitment, we don’t have a project, in our opinion,” Philp said. “We’ll be ready to go once the city makes the commitment”

Philp noted Port Arthur Rotary is pursuing charitable status to support its own fundraising efforts for the trail, and spoke to the organization’s “proven track record” raising funds for local projects. 

That includes Rotarians raising $200,000 in the 1990s to support trails between the college and university, which he said helped secure matching commitments from both the province and the city.

Over a dozen people attended in support of the Rotary deputation on Thursday.

Past time for Memorial cycling link, advocates say

Cycling advocates from Just Bike TBay and the Memorial Link group urged council to support a planned investment to build a bridge carrying a multi-use trail over the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway.

The groups also asked council to begin planning for protected bike lanes along May Street and Memorial Avenue.

“People have been asking for a safe alternative to riding in 70-kilometre per hour motor vehicle traffic or illegal and equally dangerous sidewalk riding for decades,” said Sarah Brown, who said she often feels she’s taking her life in her hands when trying to cross the city on two wheels.

The proposed budget includes $171,500 for the Vickers-Carrick multi-use trail bridge in 2023, with another $2.5 million planned in 2024 to complete the project.

Ken Shields noted the Vickers-Carrick bridge has been long considered but perennially pushed off in favour of other priorities.

Asked about the possibility of working with CN Rail to use its nearby railway bridge to reduce costs, city manager Norm Gale said the company had refused to entertain the idea.

“CN said no,” Gale said. “It’s a straight, flat out no, there’s no negotiations.”

The group also welcomed funding for four new pedestrian crossovers in the budget.

Group wants to keep affordable access pilot in budget

Poverty Free Thunder Bay asked councillors to support an “affordable access” pilot program that would provide discounted passes for public transit and city recreation facilities to up to 500 low-income residents over the coming three years.

The previous city council voted last year to include the pilot in this year’s budget, but only by a one-vote margin, raising concerns it could be removed as some councillors seek to lower spending.

Under the program, participants would pay $41, rather than $82, for a monthly bus pass.

An estimated 250 residents would benefit from the transit discounts, with another 250 or so able to take advantage of the recreation discounts

Group member Paul Berger argued the pilot program is one example of how the city can blunt the impact of inflation on the most vulnerable, saying “we don’t have an affordability crisis as much as we have an inequality crisis.”

The estimated $231,500 cost of the pilot is “barely a rounding error in the budget,” Berger added.

The proposed budget would hike the cost of bus passes by an average of three per cent, while keeping cash fare frozen at three dollars.

Poverty Free Thunder Bay previously called on the city to make transit fare-free, and Berger said that’s still the ultimate goal.

Advocate Tracey McKinnon renewed a challenge the group previously issued to city councillors to regularly use the city’s public transit system, suggesting the experience would leave them in little doubt of the need for investments.

Residents will have another opportunity to provide feedback on the budget on Feb. 2, after city council makes changes to the document over the course of four review meetings.

Read more about the city’s budget process here.

Ian Kaufman

About the Author: Ian Kaufman

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