BOLT Transit has reached the end of the line in Lacombe.
Despite narrowly escaping termination twice in the past 16 months, BOLT will cease to operate by October 2020, following a 5-2 city council decision to initiate Lacombe’s withdrawl from the intra-municipal transit service.
Coun. Don Gullekson put the motion forward, citing a lack of success by the BOLT governance committee over the past 11 months to improve ridership and justify the $200,000 annual subsidy provided by the city.
Committee member and fellow Councillor Jonathan Jacobson joined him, saying he couldn’t allow the service to continue when BOLT’s ridership levels paled in comparison to other municipalities with mature transit systems.
“Red Deer has 7.6 per cent of their population riding their bus system every day…Let’s assume, for discussion’s sake that every single one of (BOLT’s) riders are from Lacombe – that’s a 0.43 per cent total ridership. Just to get to City of Red Deer comparable numbers, we’d have to have a 1,700 per cent increase in ridership,” Jacobson said. “Does anyone think that’s realistic?
“We have to think wholesale about this and not retail. Because of the numbers, it’s not, in my opinion, ethical to the taxpayers of Lacombe that we fund something to the tune of $200,000.”
Mayor Grant Creasey and Councillors Reuben Konnik and Chris Ross, all long vocal opponents of the service, also voted in favour.
Councillors Thalia Hibbs and Cora Hoekstra, however, voted against.
Hoekstra said it was premature given review processes for transit happening throughout the province which Lacombe could benefit them, and both said they heard loud and clear the need for the service through multiple emails and discussions with citizens.
Hibbs suggested it was unfair to compare their system with a mature one, given BOLT is in its infancy and made a passionate plea to council to allow the committee – which had not had it’s one-year anniversary – a chance to do its job and look into options to grow the service.
Speaking with media afterwards, she called council’s decision “short-sighted” and one that would reflect badly on them, particularly given last year’s budget survey showed 64 per cent of responsdents wanted to maintain or increase funding to the service compared to 25 per cent who wanted to see the service eliminated.
“I spoke with passion because I am passionate about this community. I want it to be successful and I want it to be great for all people that live here and we have a lot of people that need a service like that,” she said.
“People were saying to me if this doesn’t exist anymore, I can’t live here anymore because it’s not feasible – I have to be in Red Deer or I have to be in Blackfalds’…Unfortunately, I think for those people it’s going to require leaving Lacombe and that’s a huge shame.”
For those people who rely on the system, Jacobson apologized.
“I would genuinely say I’m sorry, that I absolutely heard what they had to say, considered it and that this was certainly not a decision made with callous regard to their personal circumstances,” he said. “I’m sorry is all I can say.”
BOLT Transit began in August 2014 as a response to a need identified through community feedback for transit services for commuters, students, seniors and low-income residents following the departure of the Greyhound bus service.
The city tried to contract the service by reaching out to private transit operators, and Red Deer Transit, but the cost initially proved to be prohibitive. It was then the municipality and Town of Blackfalds formed a partnership and agreed to cost-share the service equally.
An 18-year term was part of the agreement, emphasizing what they thought would be a long-term commitment to offering public transit – a key reason the system was approved.
In May 2018, council first looked at withdrawing from the service, but it was defeated and instead the BOLT Committee was formed to find ways to improve the service. In September 2018, several service level changes went into effect, including the addition of extra evening stops, the implementation of a universal transit pass at Burman University, and elimination of Saturday service.
The committee’s first meeting took place in November 2018. In February 2019, however, Coun. Chris Ross presented a motion to explore exit strategies. As a result, the BOLT Committee rushed to make a recommendation to transition the system to a commuter model in attempt to save the service but both were defeated by council once again in another 4-3 vote.
A BOLT survey was undertaken over the summer ahead of planned service revisions in 2020 which had 307 respondents – with 46 per cent from Blackfalds, 44 per cent from Lacombe, and six per cent from Red Deer with the rest split between Lacombe and Red Deer County. Of the respondents, the majority were generally satisfied with the service, however, wanted to see better integration with Red Deer’s transit system, shorter trips, and increased frequency of stops and routes within the community.
From August 2014 to September 2018, BOLT made six round trips each weekday, and three on Saturdays to Red Deer, with the average monthly ridership sitting at 1,629 as of May 2018, when BOLT’s termination first avoided in a 4-3 vote.
Service level changes, including the elimination of the Saturday route and the addition of extra trips in the evening, as well as the creation of a universal transit pass at Burman University, were implemented in September 2018 to improve ridership. In the first four months of the changes, ridership increased by 433 year over year and October 2018 recorded the highest number of riders since BOLT’s inception with 2,141. In 2019, the average ridership through the first seven months improved to 1,812, and surpassed the 2,000 mark for a second time in June with 2,025.
The system sees about 60 rides per day, but to match Red Deer’s numbers – which are on the low end of ridership based on population – Jacobson said they’d need to increase to 1,000 rides per day. In order to even think about reaching that target, more service level changes would be needed – the very same suggested by BOLT survey respondents.
BOLT will remain in Lacombe for one more year.
Jacobson believes the city needs to reset and pay for a transportation study to accurately assess what the community’s needs are before making any further decision on transit.
Hibbs was open to the idea of a local system and is willing to talk about it, however, had some skepticism such a system would actually be implemented.
“I guess it would come down to dollars, but I kind of have to wonder if this was too much money, why that would not be too much money,” she said.
Early reaction on social media was disappointment, including from two Blackfalds town councillors.
“So disheartening to hear, and it was difficult to watch on livestream! Thanks to those who fought for the process!” wrote Coun. Marina Appel.
Coun. Rebecca Stendie echoed those sentiments.
“I’m pretty shook that the committee had no say, nor did the survey results sway council on this. Difficult to watch is an understatement. Thank you Blackfalds council, Thalia and Cora for seeing benefit in this service. To our residents who use it, I’m sorry for today’s news. Your council is hard at work trying to figure out the implications of this,” she said.
Red Deer-Lacombe’s newly announced Liberal Party candidate Tiffany Rose chimed in as well.
“Saving money on the backs of low income people. Shame,” she said.
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