BOLT Transit termination to be considered again in Lacombe

The City of Lacombe will consider backing out of the BOLT regional transit service for the third time Sept. 23. City of Lacombe

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For a third time in 16 months, BOLT Transit services in Lacombe will once again be at risk of termination.

At their regular meeting Monday, Lacombe City Coun. Don Gullekson introduced a Notice of Motion to initiate the city’s withdrawal from the BOLT regional transit service, which will go before council at their Sept. 23 meeting. If passed, BOLT will cease to operate in Lacombe, likely by October 2020.

While a governance oversight committee was formed and has been meeting since November 2018 to review and improve upon the service, Gullekson says he’s not seeing results and therefore believes it’s time to put an end to the regional system.

“I felt there was nothing coming out of that. I was one of the main people that were proponents of that committee to give it another opportunity before we did anything permanently with BOLT…In discussion with members on that committee, the board, it was going nowhere,” said Gullekson.

“I was hoping there would’ve been some innovation, some changes as far as scheduling, or providing better service so that we’d maybe see increased ridership. We haven’t really seen any increased ridership of any amount, so I think it’s time to look at it.”

BOLT was first established in August 2014 to fill a transportation void left by Greyhound’s departure from the community. At the time, community feedback identified such a service was needed for commuters, students, seniors and low-income residents, not to mention support future service industry growth.

Contracting the service was looked into, but it proved to be cost-prohibitive until the Town of Blackfalds agreed to cost share the service. The agreement was for an 18-year term, emphasizing a long-term commitment – a key component in BOLT’s original approval – to offering public transit.

However, the cost to run the service – $285,000 in 2017 while only generating $59,000 in revenue with a $200,000 subsidy – has been a point of contention with some members of the community, not to mention some city councillors.

BOLT’s termination was first discussed in May 2018, but council voted 4-3 in favour of keeping the service. In September 2018, service level changes were made, including the elimination of the Saturday route, addition of extra evening trips, and the introduction of the universal transit “U-pass” system at Burman University.

In the first four months of changes, ridership increased 433 year over year, while October 2018 saw the highest number of riders ever with 2,141. Cost recovery, meanwhile, had increased to 29 per cent in 2018, with 20 per cent considered good, and 30-35 per cent being ideal, according to statistics presented to Blackfalds council earlier this year by Director of Infrastructure and Property Services Preston Weran.

Still, in February 2019, Coun. Chris Ross brought forward a motion for administration to explore exit strategies. The motion triggered a recommendation from the BOLT committee to transition the service into a commuter model, in a last ditch effort to “save” the service. Both were defeated, with BOLT surviving in another 4-3 vote.

Those in favour of maintaining the service said exploring exit strategies was premature, given the committee had only met three times. Six months later, Gullekson says the situation is different, given other municipalities, including nearby Red Deer, are reviewing their transit services, not to mention Cold Shot bus lines expanding their services into Lacombe, allowing people to ship items, or travel between Edmonton and Calgary.

Instead of continuing BOLT, he’d rather see monies go towards a community bus service and build the system by focusing on attracting more youth to ride.

“I’d certainly like to see the funding go into a community bus service that would provide the needs for seniors and our children in the community and that’s what we have to work towards. If you ever want a public transit system to work, you have to start young and teach your children to ride the bus. Our children aren’t used to riding public transit,” he said. “Let’s start a system in our own community that serves our own needs within our community.”

A BOLT survey was undertaken over the summer and ended Aug. 2. Results of that survey have not been released.

Burman University also sent a letter to the City of Lacombe, which was included in the Sept. 9 agenda package, thanking the staff for their involvement with their BOLT Excursion event. In the letter, Vice President of Student Services Stacy Hunter said they had 44 freshman and nine leadership students take part, and “many students expressed their new confidence should they choose to use the BOLT system in the future.”

The discussion on BOLT’s future in Lacombe will take place at the next regular council meeting on Monday, Sept. 23 at 5 p.m. in council chambers.

Residents can give their feedback to council on Wednesday evening during Coffee with Council at the Active Living Fair at the Lacombe Memorial Centre from 4 p.m. until 7:30 p.m., or by contacting members of council.

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