Dec 19, 2009

Raleigh Avenue bus garage debate heads back to Oshawa council

The debate over the transfer of an Oshawa bus garage to Durham Region Transit got heated at Regional Council on Wednesday, but the issue was ultimately punted back to the City of Oshawa.

When the Region took over public transit in 2005, part of the deal was that all transit assets, including buses, garages and more, would be transferred to the Region.

Ajax and Pickering transferred transit buildings or leased them to the Region in 2008. However, the transfer of a bus garage on Raleigh Avenue in Oshawa is still outstanding. The issue now has a sense of urgency because the facility is slated for a multi-million dollar upgrade with the creation of Hwy. 2 rapid transit bus system using provincial funding.

"We need to get the garage in the name of the Region either in a lease or transferred to us or we potentially lose the funding for the bus rapid transit," said senior solicitor for the Region, Matthew Gaskell.

That's why Region and Oshawa staffs recommended a lease agreement where the garage would be leased to the Region by the City for $1; the Ajax Transit ticket terminal was also leased for that amount. But Oshawa councillors balked, instead pairing the issue with the debate over $8.6 million in unfunded liabilities, including employee pensions and benefits, carried over from the Oshawa Transit Commission.

On Nov. 23, they passed a motion that said if Durham dropped the request for $8.6 million, it could rent the depot to the Region for 25 years at a cost of $1. The other option Oshawa considered was leasing the depot for $440,000 a year for five years, with options to renew the lease.

After a heated debate, primarily among Oshawa councillors and the mayor, Regional councillors voted on Wednesday to send the issue back to Oshawa council and once again request the $1 lease. If Oshawa doesn't agree, Regional Chairman Roger Anderson said DRT will start looking for a new site for the garage because it won't risk losing the provincial dollars.

Coun. Brian Nicholson, one of the Oshawa councillors who voted to pair the two issues together, accused the Region of using threats and intimidation.

"I don't believe that's the way to treat a member municipality," he said.

However, Oshawa Mayor John Gray disagreed. He was opposed to pairing the unfunded liabilities issue with the issue of the lease and said the City's solicitor advised council against doing that. However, he was outvoted.

"If the Region abandons the site, we would continue to have ownership and we would end up with a derelict building on a brownfield," he said.

Brownfield land is land formerly used for industrial purposes, requiring environmental clean up before it can be redeveloped.

As the mayor spoke during the council meeting, Coun. John Neal shouted him down.

"I'm asking for the mayor to stand up for Oshawa," he said.

This earned a rebuke from Mr. Anderson.

"Coun. Neal, if you want to fight with your mayor at home, you can do your fighting with your mayor at home."

Ultimately, councillors voted 23-4 in favour of punting the issue back to Oshawa council, with Coun. Neal, Coun. Nicholson, Coun. April Cullen and Coun. Robert Lutczyk voting against it. Mayor Gray indicated he's been meeting with local councillors and he's hoping they'll accept the deal this time around.
As for the issues of the unfunded liabilities, the Region wants the issue to go to arbitration and so far Oshawa is refusing.
Mayor Gray argues that Oshawa shouldn't have to pay because the municipality contributed a slew of new buses while other municipalities contributed aging buses or none at all, in the case of Whitby, because its transit was contracted to a private company.

But Mr. Anderson points out that in 2008, Pickering agreed to pay the unfunded liabilities for its former transit workers. However, that $210,700 tab was far smaller than Oshawa's.

"Obviously you don't get $9 million in unfunded liabilities by paying your bills," he said. | Raleigh Avenue bus garage debate heads back to Oshawa council.

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