Less than a year after BOLT Transit escaped termination in Lacombe, the service had another close call.
Despite a 4-3 vote in favour of keeping the service in May 2018, Lacombe Councillor Chris Ross put forward a Notice of Motion proposing administration look at exit strategies for the service.
The motion triggered a recommendation from the BOLT Committee to transition the service into a commuter model, which would see both transit routes and route travel time reduced to serve just the 77 per cent of riders who travel during peak commuter times.
It also triggered an hour’s worth of debate that would ultimately see neither the motion nor the recommendation passed, and the maintenance of status quo for the time being.
Coun. Thalia Hibbs was the most vocal about her concerns, calling both the motion to explore an exit as well as the service level recommendation premature.
“We decided in May that we wanted to strike a committee. That committee didn’t meet until November, they’ve had three meetings and we’re already talking about an exit strategy? Fine. Let’s talk about an exit strategy – later, if that’s what the numbers show,” she said.
“There’s a lot of support in the community for this service and a lot of people in this community don’t mind what they’re paying for it, which is actually cheaper now because of changes we made in September. I’d like to see us build on that and not just throw it all out.”
Service level changes in September included the elimination of a Saturday route in favour of extra evening trips, as well as the introduction of a universal transit “U-pass” system at Burman University.
Hibbs said that in the first four months after the changes, ridership increased by 433 year over year, with October seeing the highest ever number of riders with 2,141, which was all achieved with little promotion. She expected the committee, which was created with the mandate to improve both ridership and cost efficiency, would build on that growth, rather than recommend scaling back the service, and to do so without public consultation.
While no one disagreed public consultation wasn’t needed, those on the BOLT Committee and those who were on council when BOLT was first established said that consultation should’ve happened at the start of the whole process, and it never was. This has created an issue for the committee to obtain information on demand for inter-regional transportation, ridership from city origin and other necessary information to guide decisions on how to improve the viability of the service.
For some, the Notice of Motion provided an opportunity to explore a reset to the system, which Coun. Jonathan Jacobson said the committee’s recommendation was the start of.
“This system is trying to solve two problems and it’s doing a terrible job at both and the two problems are intramunicipal transportation and intermunicipal transportation,” he said. “I was the one who suggested the most likely method of this program staying intact…would be to strip it down to what we know the demand is.
“We provide buses for those folks, strip the cost down to something that, well, at least we’re getting the usership cost with, and build it up from there, and do it properly.”
However, other members of council, including Ross, Coun. Reuben Konnik and Mayor Grant Creasey thought it better to just put an end to the service as a whole, rather than continue paying for the service for the next couple of years while the committee continues to work on ridership and efficiency.
“The current structure of this system is still not feasible, it’s still not increasing ridership. We increased 597 rides from 2017 to 2018, which is only a 3 per cent increase,” said Ross. “I still don’t see the viability with how BOLT currently is.”
The motion was defeated 4-3, with Ross, Konnik and Creasey – the same who voted in favour of BOLT’s demise last year – voting in favour.
The recommendation from the BOLT committee was unanimously received as information.
Blackfalds content with status quo
In Blackfalds, a similar, albeit less lengthy and heated, debate was had Tuesday, with most of council agreeing the service was already on the right path and that now wasn’t the time for change.
Councillors had concerns about scheduling with the recommendation, as well as with the committee even bringing forward a recommendation for more service changes just six months after the last set, especially when transit representatives from both Airdrie and Red Deer said ridership changes wouldn’t be seen for a year to 18 months after any change.
Director of Infrastructure and Property Services Preston Weran explained it was due to concern Lacombe might have voted in favour of backing out of BOLT, and they were happy that wasn’t the case.
“We were under the gun to make some sort of service level change because of this service possibly ‘dying on the vine,’ so to speak,” he said.
“It was nice to see that we can now, hopefully, take some time to finalize these key performance indicators and then look at a service change that is going to both be able to grow with our communities and also try to meet those targets that we set out. I’m excited about the way it turned out last night.”
Weran said system cost recovery for the system – total actual operating revenue totalling actual expenditures – was 23 per cent in 2016, 20 per cent in 2017 and 29 per cent in 2018. In terms of transit, he said, any figure over 20 percent is considered good, with a target of 30-35 per cent being ideal.
“Obviously, we’re heading in the right direction,” said Coun. Jamie Hoover. “I think it would be an absolute tragedy after gaining a partner like Burman to threaten that service. From my perspective, I’m certainly glad we’re holding onto the status quo at this point.”
Blackfalds accepted the recommendation as information, and referred back to administration and the BOLT oversight committee.