In Part 2 of Youth Priorities in Windsor-Essex I look at my 10th through 6th rank priorities that were outlined at the Your City Your Idea event last summer.
10) Regional Transit Plan
This idea was by far, one of the most popular ones put forward during the YCYI event. In principle it sounds like a great idea; develop a transit connection between the City of Windsor with the neighbouring communities of Lasalle, Tecumseh as well as the “far flung” county towns of Lakeshore, Essex, Amherstburg, Kingsville and Leamington. Although there is now talk of a pilot program to tie together Windsor, Tecumseh, Lakeshore and LaSalle; broader transit expansion still comes with a number of challenges.
The first issue emerges in the ordering of the transit priorities listed by the YCYI participants. By placing a regional transit before destigmatizing the use of the transit (see Priority 4 in Part 3 of this series), we are setting up the expansion for failure. If people aren’t willing to use the expanded service, then why expand it?
The second issue comes from the fact that no transit system in Canada or the US, breaks even based on ridership generated revenues. Although this funding challenge doesn’t necessarily rule out an expansion to the county, taxpayers need to be assured that the expansion won’t be a fiscal disaster. It is unlikely that the Transit Windsor (or a new regional transit authority) could afford to add the buses or other vehicles to its transit fleet to support an expanded system without hire taxes or funding from the Province or Federal government. The additional routes would mean new drivers and mechanics would need to be hired and the additional wear and tear on the buses from the longer routes means more repairs and a shorter usable lifespan. The key question is, whether people who don’t use transit are willing to pay higher taxes to pay for this expansion or if the people who use transit regularly are willing to pay higher fares, as these are both possible outcomes for any regional transit expansion.
The final issue is the big one; can a regional transit system work? On paper the idea of uniting the region under a grand transit plan seems great, the question is can it be practically done? If driving distance from Kingsville Ferry Docks to the Downtown Bus Terminal is about 45 minute, then a person has to catch another bus to get to their place of work, Devonshire Mall, the University etc. people will only use the bus so long as it is a necessity to them. The fundamental problem with a regional transit plan in Windsor-Essex unlike in other regions (GTA, London, Kitchener-Waterloo, Niagara) there are kilometers of green fields between Windsor and the outlying communities which makes it difficult to make the routes run efficiently and without massive costs. I would argue that small scale expansion of service to both Tecumseh and Lasalle is the best and cost-effective option but anything beyond that is likely not viable on a large scale.
9) Encourage Local Paid Internship and Co-op Opportunities
To develop a successful internship/co-op program requires four things: a willing employer, a willing educational institution, a willing student and the willingness to coordinate between the groups. Simply put there are already a number of co-op and internship programs (both paid and unpaid) through the university and college. These programs take a lot of time and money to organize, support and run so to expect massive expansion of existing programs is unrealistic. Additionally since many University and College Internships are “prestige programs” that only a certain portion of students successfully enter, by expanding the program, the school risk tarnishing their program brands and lowering standards.
On the business side there are already incentives for businesses to hire co-op students. There are also a number of reasons why they do not hire them. The biggest challenge in my opinion is that it is perceived by businesses that it isn’t worth the time, energy or effort to hire, train, supervise and track these students only to have them work for a few months and then go back to school. There is no guarantee that students will come back next summer or after graduation. Frankly for some businesses it might be easier and cheaper to hire a contractor or temp worker to do the job that an intern/co-op student might be assigned. Finally for every dozens of successful internship there are is that one dismal failure who does poor quality work and causing more headaches then they are worth. It is this one bad apple that shapes the mindset of businesses and their fear of that one screw up that costs them time and money drives them away from interns and co-ops.
8) Lower Tax Rates for Businesses Located Downtown
The Downtown BIA already provides incentives (the BIA pays half the rent for a year) for businesses to move downtown. So the question becomes does the rest of the city have to subsidizes the downtown to a greater extent. The principal tax that the city collects are property taxes, if a business owner doesn’t own the building they are operating from, they very well may not see any benefit from lower property taxes in the downtown. There is no guarantee that the owner will pass on the savings from the lower taxes will through decreased rent rates to their tenants.
The bigger issue is that if a business need’s this lower tax rate to start up, be competitive and survive then the business is weak to begin with. All that the lower downtown tax rate is doing is distorting the incentive to start a business in a given location. What the business owner is betting is that the lower tax rates downtown may make up for passing on a potentially better location somewhere else in the city. A better solution is to find methods to attract more people to the downtown and make it more convenience and pleasant place to shop like keeping the farmers market downtown.
7) Establish a Robust Bike Transit System
Establishing a robust bike transit system is one area where Windsor is making progress. Most major road reconstruction projects now include bike lanes as a part of their proposals. The Herb Grey Parkway provides almost 20 km of new bike trails and will be completed in 2015. Yes there are gaps in the bike lane systems, but each year and each construction project seems to close sections around the city. The goal of a Windsor Loop is in the city’s future it is just a question of when we get there. Unfortunately the loop will not solve all of the problems as you need to be able to cross or enter the loop safely. Beyond Windsor, other communities are doing their part, the primary challenge is that the further flung towns are connected by highways which takes time and great expense to upgrade with bike infrastructure.
Overall Windsor-Essex has some of the most temperate weather in all of Canada; some 200+ days a year are bike friendly are bike friendly. Unfortunately it is still a region designed for and built around the car. As people have moved into the suburbs it makes building a bike friendly communities more difficult. Like the destimatization of transit, a change in mindset is needed before Windsor becomes a bikers paradise we need people to move downtown or into the surrounding neighbourhoods to make biking to work/school/store a viable options for more Windsorites.
6) Expanded Cross-Border Transit Options
We are getting expanded cross-border options as the NITC Bridge is scheduled to be completed in 2019 or 2020. Although this bridge bypasses the downtown it will divert traffic from the Ambassador Bridge and Windsor-Detroit Tunnel making the overall crossings at all points easier and quicker. This bridge could have a bigger impact if Brian Masse’s proposal for bike lanes is accepted and goes forward.
Unfortunately waiting for 2020 likely isn’t what people had in mind. There are plans for a pilot program for a Detroit-Windsor passenger ferry connecting the two downtowns’ the question is if it will be successful and if it is, what impacts will it have? Even if the various administrative hurdles are cleared and the ferry runs seasonally the impact could be a net loss for Windsor as easy access to Detroit could draw people from our struggling downtown across the border. I personally would love to see it happen, but I worry that it could just make the job of revitalizing the city centre that much harder.
Check back Monday Morning for my final 5 priorities and some conclusions.