BOLT Transit won’t be going anywhere except to take passengers to their desired destinations – at least for the next three years.
At their regular meeting on Monday, Lacombe city council voted 4-3 against giving a notice of intent to back out of the BOLT regional transit system. Instead, a governance oversight committee will be formed to look into ways to improve the system and study alternative transit models over the next three years.
The decision didn’t come quickly.
It took council over an hour to finally vote on moving forward with a committee, with some councillors finding the cost of the service – $258,000 last year, while only generating $59,000 in revenue – hard to swallow, while dishing out almost $200,000 to subsidize the system.
Mayor Grant Creasey, who was vocal about his view of the service during last year’s municipal election, was among the critics.
“I struggle with the idea of the regional service being the responsibility of the taxpayer to send people out of our community,” he said.
“I think we’re trying to address a problem that does not exist to a very large degree. I’m not saying it doesn’t help anybody, but a lot of these measures we’re trying to come up with to address times and wait times…I don’t think we have the financial capacity to offer a taxi type service from a regional bus service.”
His comments were echoed by Coun. Reuben Konnik who expressed cynicism over spending more money and implementing a governance committee, which he says may not be able to address fluctuating ridership numbers and revenue shortfalls.
Coun. Chris Ross was on side as well, putting forward the motion to give a notice of intention to withdraw from the regional system effective July 1, 2019.
However, others urged council not to make a hasty or rash decision.
Coun. Thalia Hibbs did her own first-hand research of the transit system, taking a ride into Red Deer and back, speaking with passengers on why they used they service. She said the notion BOLT always takes people out of the community was false and in fact spoke with a Blackfalds resident who chose to come to Lacombe for her services simply because she like Lacombe’s community-minded atmosphere.
“We need to look at the long term picture. Right now there’s an outlay of taxpayer dollars but we have an opportunity to grow something that will benefit our community, that will make Lacombe a lot more attractive,” she said.
“Municipalities offer these services for a reason – they’re not money makers. This is what municipalities do for the common good and I think a regional transportation system definitely falls within that.”
BOLT was officially established in August 2014, following the departure of Greyhound services in Lacombe.
At that time, community feedback showed the need for regular public transit service for commuters, students, seniors and low-income residents, as well as support future service industry growth.
The city reached out to private transit operators, as well as Red Deer Transit, but the cost of contracting the service proved to be cost-prohibitive, until the Town of Blackfalds got on board and agreed to cost-share the service equally.
The agreement included an 18-year term, which not only coincided with the expected fleet replacement schedule, but emphasized the long-term commitment to offering public transit, which was a key component in the system’s approval.
Since then BOLT has made six round trips per weekdays and three on Saturdays, offering service within the communities as well as into Red Deer, with an average monthly ridership of 1,629, however, that ridership has fluctuated since the service’s inception, affecting cost recovery of BOLT, which sits around 21 per cent.
QUALITY OF LIFE AND ECONOMIC GROWTH
However, while ridership numbers and expenses can be tracked, some councillors said those statistics missed the mark on providing a complete picture of the value and benefit of the service to the city’s quality of life.
“I don’t want to minimize the input received to me by citizens, but it was all reduced to dollars and cents. I think what the BOLT bus brings to our community can’t be measured that simply,” said Coun. Cora Hoekstra.
“We’ve never addressed what kind of investment has come to town because we have a regional system – there are many communities desiring a regional transportation system because they know it’s something they should have.”
Coun. Jonathan Jacobson, while agreeing with Creasey in many ways in terms of placing the burden on taxpayers for the regional system, also want to explore the impact to business before agreeing to cut the service.
“It’s an extraordinarily expensive experiment to maintain,” he said.
“However, the business case has not been established yet. Looking at this from a bird’s eye view, there’s going to be a university in Red Deer in the next four years – we don’t know to what degree that’s going to impact it….There’s almost so much invested in this that I don’t want to throw it out without everything being looked at.”
Transit has already been a conversation in the Town of Blackfalds with regards to improving economic growth.
In fact, a Central Alberta Economic Partnership study showed it influenced many in their decision whether or not to move into a community and town council is aware of at least one known case of a company choosing not to open nearby because of a lack of transit.
Had Lacombe voted to withdraw from BOLT Transit, it could’ve potentially put the town in a difficult spot, as well, forcing them to negotiate a new agreement with Red Deer Transit, which could’ve proved to be as cost-prohibitive as it was for the City of Lacombe without cost-sharing.
One solution to help with reducing the deficit for both communities came from Burman University, who offered to establish a universal transit pass for each student for at least three years.
In addition to the governance body, council also voted to accept the university’s proposal.
“Based on council’s direction, we are working with Burman University to develop agreement terms for their student bus pass proposal,” said acting Chief Administrative Officer Brenda Vaughn.
“We are also reaching out to our partners to establish a regional transit governance committee to explore opportunities for improving the reach and usability of the current service, and examine different options to provide effective, efficient transit service to area residents.”
The UPass would see each student pay a required $200 fee, through their student association fees on an annual basis to help students get to class, or access services elsewhere within or outside the community.
Saturday service would be cancelled, however, additional evening weekday trips would be added, as well as Sunday charter service.
“The proposed partnership with Burman University will positively impact cost recovery efforts, thereby bolstering service viability,” said Guy Lapointe, community economic development manager.
“It also promotes greater connection between Burman University and the City of Lacombe, which long has been a strategic priority of council.”
The proposal is expected to reduce municipal subsidy by 7.2 per cent in 2018 and 14.5 per cent in 2019, while increase cost recovery by 6 per cent and 16 per cent in 2019. If a 10 per cent increase in ridership is seen, there could be the potential to reduce the average cost per ride to $11.52 from $15.94.