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Steinbach, Niverville pass on transit study

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A regional effort to identify transportation challenges in the Southeast is moving ahead without the participation of two populous municipalities.

The City of Steinbach and Town of Niverville aren’t taking part in a regional transit study led by a consultant hired by the RM of Piney, but the respective councils arrived at that decision for different reasons, council members said last week.

“It boiled down to basically finances,” Chris Wiebe, Niverville’s deputy mayor, said. “We’re up against a pretty stringent budget this year and this was just was one of the things we couldn’t participate in.”

Each participating municipality must contribute $2,500 toward the cost of the study, which will examine how and why people currently travel around the region of Manitoba east of the Red River and south of the Trans-Canada Highway.

Connie Gamble, the consultant coordinating the study, is urging councils to see the $2,500 buy-in as an investment that will allow municipalities to access federal funding reserved for regional transit projects.

“That could be going to a $300,000 or $400,000 transit project,” she said.

Eco-West, an organization promoting sustainable economic development, will analyze the study’s findings and devise workable solutions that Gamble has said will likely involve inter-municipal cooperation.

The end goal is to make it easier for people to get around the Southeast even if they don’t drive or own their own vehicle. Gamble hopes the project can serve as a template for other regions of Manitoba.

Wiebe said Niverville council’s decision was largely determined by a regional wastewater treatment plant contribution that is having an outsized effect on the town’s 2023 budget.

“We’re cutting at every corner that we can,” he said.

Wiebe said the study was one of several town council passed up in the interest of saving money. Council also discussed the study’s relevance to an increasingly urban municipality like Niverville.

“I think our needs are different than Piney’s,” he said.

Gamble said Niverville never told her cost was a factor during her discussions with the town.

Troy Warkentin, Steinbach’s city manager, said city council passed on the transit study because of its perceived rural focus.

“Our understanding is that the initiative is intended to focus on rural communities and areas that don’t have access to for-hire ride services or publicly available transportation options,” Warkentin said in an email.

Steinbach Mayor Earl Funk said he was under the impression the study was mainly intended to bring skilled workers to urban employers.

“So I didn’t really pay that much attention to it, really,” Funk said this week.

Gamble didn’t share that assessment.

“I think this project in particular has a lot of value for all municipalities,” she said.

Twelve municipalities are participating in the study: the Town of Ste Anne, the Village of St Pierre, Buffalo Point First Nation, and the RMs of Piney, Stuartburn, Hanover, La Broquerie, Reynolds, De Salaberry, Ste Anne, Ritchot, and Tache.

The RMs of Montcalm and Emerson-Franklin have joined Niverville and Steinbach in forgoing the study.

Gamble said the study is proceeding as planned and said municipalities can join at a later date. The data collection phase ends Feb. 28.

Funk said city council is taking other steps on transit. Later this year, Steinbach’s Official Community Plan, a land-use policy guide, will be amended to include a provision on public transit.

Funk said the $2,500 cost of the transit study wasn’t a factor for city council, but said he’d like to see the Steinbach Chamber of Commerce front costs associated with any project holding implications for economic development.

Funk added city council would consider any proposal generated by the study that includes a Steinbach component.

“We’re always open to listening to recommendations.”

Gamble said about 30 people from Steinbach have already filled out an online survey on individuals’ transportation needs.

“Even people within Steinbach are indicating they need to get to the mall,” she said.

Wiebe said Niverville council has a good handle on the town’s transportation needs but has a harder time seeing workable solutions.

“There’s such a variety of destinations out of Niverville,” Wiebe said. “And now what’s happening with working from home, it’s really up in the air.”

Last year’s census showed 70 percent of Niverville’s workforce commutes outside of the town to work. Half of them have a commute over 30 minutes long.

A YouTube video promoting the transit study states all Manitobans deserve public transportation options to help ensure equal access to health-care services and economic opportunities that enhance quality of life.

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