There is no better example in the world of the importance of a well-functioning public transportation infrastructure than Canada. It is a country that was knit together by that very thing. Indeed, it’s fair to say Canada might not exist as coast-to-coast nation it now is – or at all, perhaps – if the Canadian Pacific Railway hadn’t been built 133 years ago.
It was a remarkable achievement for a brand, new country of a few million people in the face of a huge geographic challenge. In 1867, the year Canada was formed, British Columbia, Britain’s west-coast colony north of the 45th parallel international boundary with the U.S., was not included. But Canada promised to build a transcontinental railroad, if B.C. joined the Confederation, which it did in 1871.
Construction was delayed by political controversy and a change in government. But the return of a Conservative government with John A. MacDonald as Prime Minister got things moving, with the eventual help of millions of public dollars.
Thousands of Chinese labourers were hired to help build the most difficult, Rocky Mountain section, and hundreds died in dreadful working conditions. The last spike was finally driven in 1885.
In the decades that followed an extensive network of rail services connected the towns and cities of the fast-growing country. At one time Canada had more miles of freight and passenger, railroad track than any country in the world.
However, as the end of the 20th century approached, much of that track was abandoned as economically unviable. For a while, highway bus transit took up the passenger slack, in southern Ontario, for example. But that too suffered the same fate. Meanwhile, fiscal conservative political thinking made government investment in public transportation less likely. By the second decade of this century public transportation to and from parts of rural Ontario was in big trouble.
I doubt any other place in rural Canada is a worse example of that than the Owen Sound, Grey-Bruce area of southwestern Ontario.
The municipal council of the City of Owen Sound deserves a lot of praise for taking the initiative this past winter and applied for a provincial grant months ago to restore a vital and direct public transportation link to Guelph, a much larger city just two hours drive south.
And qualified kudos as well to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation for approving the city’s application for a $1.44 Million grant to help get the restored bus transit service up and running. Guelph is a transportation hub with GoTransit and public transportation links to Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo and other big cities in southern Ontario.
But the approval, just before an election, and the possibility a new government will want to review all such decisions, could be a problem.
First, this question is worth asking: what is good, right and successful when it comes to public transportation?
It’s absurd that to get to Guelph, let alone Toronto, by bus now requires a once-a-day trip to Toronto from Owen Sound, via Barrie; and then another bus from Toronto to Guelph. Under the circumstances that amounts to a high-degree of disconnect, even isolation, for people in Owen Sound and area who don’t drive.
And the socio-economic, development optics of that are an obvious turn-off. Even if the proposed bus service isn’t self-sustaining for a number of years, it’s value in terms of countering that negative impression is huge.
I firmly believe the proposed Owen Sound-Guelph bus service can and will be financially viable. The trend-setting “boomer” generation is entering its senior years. Meanwhile, seniors are living longer that ever before, well into their 80s and 90s. The Owen Sound, Grey-Bruce area already has a high proportion of seniors in its population, myself included. And there comes a time when we have to stop driving.
I’m also confident there are plenty of other people who will take that bus. Not long before the daily, direct bus services between Owen Sound and Toronto, via Guelph, ended I remember waiting several times to pick up arriving family members and visitors at the Owen Sound bus terminal. Invariably, lots of young people got off the bus from Toronto and points in between. If, anything those numbers will increase as the cost of owning and operating private vehicles continues to rise.
So, there’s lots of good reasons why a restored bus service to Guelph is not only needed, but could also be self-sustaining, given a few years to get established.
But it may not happen, despite the Ministry of Transportation’s “approval” of the vital, start-up funding. Nothing regarding the $1.44 million grant has been formally signed, sealed, and delivered. And as we keep hearing there may be a change of government after Ontario voters cast their ballots on June 7. Indeed, the popularity polls, if they’re accurate, say it’s more than likely. The Progressive Conservatives led by Doug Ford are still well ahead of the incumbent Liberal government under Premier Kathleen Wynne, and the NDP lead by Andrea Horwath.
So, in that case, what would happen to the ministry grant-approval if the PCs win? After all, Ford has based his campaign on finding billions of dollars worth of “efficiencies” to reduce the provincial deficit.
The city was notified by the ministry a little more than a week ago that its grant application had been approved. Chris Hughes, Owen Sound’s manager of contract services, told me in a phone interview that an agreement between the city and the ministry still has to be signed. “The ministry said we’ll hear from them in a few weeks” about that, he said. The city won’t get the money until that agreement is signed.
The ministry response was not encouraging when I inquired about the status of the formal agreement and the approval:
“Funding has been allocated to the City of Owen Sound through the Community Transportation Grant program. We cannot speculate on the impact the election may have,” said a ministry media spokesperson in an email response.
I called Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MPP Bill Walker, a PC member. I asked, what happens to the Owen Sound-Guelph bus-route, grant approval if the PCs win the election?
“I can’t say everything won’t be reviewed,” Walker said. No doubt a Ford government “will be going over everything with a fine, tooth comb.”
But Walker said he strongly supports the bus-route plan, as something the Owen Sound area needs. “This is the type of program rural Ontario needs,” he added.
Still, there’s no denying the possibility the plan to restore direct bus service between Owen Sound and Guelph could be skewed.
I see the need not so much for a new system, as for a restored one, in a “back to the future” sense.
There was a time when this province and its many small towns as well as cities were well-served by passenger rail services, as well as bus routes.
I have a clear memory of being many times at the bus terminal in Toronto at Bay and Dundas streets when it was the hub of Gray Coach bus services to numerous destinations throughout Ontario, 60-plus years ago. One after another a steady stream of buses drove in and took their places at numerous lanes, where sign-posts listed the names of dozens of towns. The ones that concerned me the most as a boy were the signs told me where to wait for the buses that would take me back to temporary farm, boarding homes; signs that said, “Cooksville, Erindale, Streetsville,” and later, “Guelph, Elmira, Fergus, Mount Forest, Durham, Owen Sound.”
That was a vital link at a time when life was a struggle for poor, but hard-working, single parents like my Mom. It’s vital now for other reasons perhaps, but just as real.
I look forward to taking one of those trips again, just for old/new times sake.
A version of this post was originally published in The Sun Times in May, 2018