Councillors have more questions on transit
Haliburton County councillors have more questions regarding transit after receiving a public transportation implementation plan from consulting firm IBI Group.
The county hired the firm in June of last year for $50,000 to complete the plan after putting out a request for proposals earlier in the year, and received a presentation on its final version from consultants during a Jan. 23 council meeting.
Challenges facing the county when it comes to transportation are its aging population, a sparse population within a large geographic area, and dispersed travel patterns that are difficult to serve.
“Not surprising, but I want to really emphasize them,” consultant Chris Prentice told councillors.
Prentice said an advantage of a demand-based system is that it can adapt and change based on the needs demonstrated by residents.
“It’s able to better serve the varied travel needs of the community,” he said.
Prentice said it was preferable for the county to start simple, judging the uptake on the system before devising anything too complex or employing new or expensive technologies.
“You want to walk before you run,” he said. “You want to make sure the service is used first, before you start adding to it.”
The recommended model for a transportation system in Haliburton County is a booked, shared ride service, where users would call or go online to book rides. The core service area identified by the firm would be the area in and around Haliburton Village and a large chunk of Minden Hills township – essentially the part of the county containing Minden, Carnarvon, West Guilford and Haliburton Village.
“They provide the best basis for getting good use of the system,” Prentice said.
Other options included service to Wilberforce and Dorset as well, and the preferred option previously identified by county council included some service to each of these locations. The estimated costing presented to councillors was for “Option D,” which inclu ded six-day-a-week service, with service 12 hours per day. A chart included in the implementation plan showed six hours a day allotted for service in the core area, three for service to Wilberforce, and three to Dorset. It is estimated there would be approximately 3,100 rides per year, or approximately 10 per operating day.
“That’s based on service in similar operations,” Prentice told councillors.
The recommended model would include the county contracting out the actual transportation and booking of rides to a private company, and the consulting firm’s estimate for that cost was $60 per hour. It’s also recommended that the county hire a full-time staff person to assist with managing the system, handling promotion and community feedback, etc. Including those costs, as well as costs for a database, marketing and communications, it’s estimated the annual cost for running the system would total approximately $295,000. Prentice told councillors the county could likely receive about $125,000 per year in provincial gas tax funding to help offset the cost of the system, however that would need to be confirmed with the Ministry of Transportation. Also, to be eligible for provincial gas tax funding for transit, the county would have to commit to operating the system for a five-year time period. Provincial gas tax transportation funding is not allotted for trials or pilot projects. Factoring in gas tax funding and other offsets such as anticipated user fares, the consulting firm estimates the cost for the county would be approximately $140,000 per year. For 2019, were a system to be put in place in the fall, the estimated cost would be approximately $80,000.
Should the cost charged by a contractor be $70 per hour instead, the estimated cost that would fall to the county per year would increase to approximately $160,000.
Councillors expressed some concerns and skepticism with the proposed plan.
“I can’t tell you how much I want this to work, but I still have problems with the logistics,” said Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt.
As she has in the past, Moffatt noted that in order to use any transportation system, residents who live on private roads would have to first make it to pick-up points on public roads. Moffatt asked Prentice how the county was supposed to go about planning for that.
“That’s a very difficult answer to be honest about it,” Prentice said. “The fact of the matter is, you can’t start going down side roads and private driveways.”
Prentice said trying to provide that kind of service would at least double the cost estimates in the plan, and said it would be up to residents to get themselves to public roadways in order to be picked up.
Moffatt also posited that, in order for someone who had, say, a medical appointment at 10 a.m., it may require getting on the bus at 6:30 a.m., with other stops for other people along the way. She questioned how many people would actually use the system given that type of situation.
“Are we creating a problem by crippling ourselves at the front end?” Moffatt asked.
“That’s exactly why you need a county person to manage the service, to manage these requests,” Prentice said.
County planner Charlsey White said later in the meeting that theoretically, a company contracted by the county would have a fleet of vehicles, so it wouldn’t necessarily be a matter of always relying on a single vehicle.
“Don’t think of it as a bus that you’re going to have running around the county, think of it as time,” White said.
One assumption in the plan that seemed to raise the eyebrows of Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts and Deputy Mayor Pat Kennedy was the inclusion of the DYMO bus – an accessible shuttle owned by the Municipality of Dysart et al – in the county system, whether that be by purchase or donation of the vehicle.
Prentice said the model the firm was proposing would replace the service provided by the DYMO bus.
“It feels like this report is sort of depending on the bus that we own and operate,” Roberts said. “I think we need to take that back to our municipality.”
Minden Hills Mayor Brent Devolin suggested that if a county-operated system was going to benefit entities such as Haliburton Highlands Health Services by transporting people reliant on the specialized transit services they provide, that there should be some chipping in on costs.
“If we start delivering people to them at a fraction of their rate . . . then those savings should accrue,” Devolin said. “But we shouldn’t have to carry the whole load.”
“There is a huge elephant in the room in that a large area of the county is not going to be served,” said Algonquin Highlands Deputy Mayor and County Warden Liz Danielsen, referring to Algonquin Highlands and Highlands East, the county’s two least populated, more outlying townships.
Highlands East does receive some service through Bancroft Community Transit and Devolin said he’d like to see Bancroft council involved in the conversation.
Councillors seemed to agree that in committing to a system, the county would be committing to unknown costs, since the figures in the plan are just estimates and that only by putting a system in place, can the county truly gauge the level of usage.
“I see this is a huge decision for us to make,” Danielsen said, adding it would be up against a number of other substantial items during the county’s upcoming budget considerations.
“If we go forward with this . . . those number charts are just guesstimates, big guesses,” Roberts said. “I think we need to acknowledge that the cost could be much greater than what was even presented to us today.”
“In theory, we’d be committing to an unknown,” said Moffatt.
Noting that they still had numerous questions – “I think we could talk about this for the rest of this day, and probably half of tomorrow,” Moffatt said – councillors decided they would submit questions to White for response. They will discuss the potential creation of a transportation system further during their budget deliberations.