County transit meeting turns tense
By Chad Ingram
Published May 15, 2018
There was much confusion, misunderstanding and frustration at a meeting between the director of operations for Bancroft Community Transit (BCT) and members of Haliburton County council last week.
As previously reported, during an April 25 meeting, county councillors requested that the director of BCT pay them a visit. Gwen Coish had been scheduled to meet with the Haliburton County transportation task force, but councillors decided they would like to hear from Coish directly.
Coish had visited Highlands East council in March, informing members of plans to potentially expand BCT’s service.
BCT has two components. It has a specialized service that offers booked rides for reasons such as medical appointments. Some clients are dialysis patients, for example. More recently, it has begun operating a public transit component, after it absorbed the former TROUT (The Rural Overland Utility Transit) last summer.
Municipalities receive gas tax funding from the provincial government that can be used for transportation purposes. Highlands East directs its gas tax funding to BCT, whose municipal lead is the Town of Bancroft, and each Friday, through the public transit component of BCT’s operations, there is bus service from Cardiff to Bancroft and back again.
BCT also recently applied for a $500,000 community transportation grant from the MTO that will allow it to expand its service during a five-year period. BCT named its existing municipal partners – Bancroft, Highlands East, Hastings Highlands and Wollaston – on that grant application. Part of the contention at last week’s meeting was that Highlands East officials say the township had not given its consent to be part of the grant application. However, Coish contends that because Highlands East is an existing municipal partner, “we didn’t require that when we put the application in.”
Another point of contention was that Coish had mentioned at the March Highlands East meeting that a potential future expansion of the service might include service to Haliburton and Minden.
Yet another confusing issue was whether Highlands East could begin reallocating its gas tax funding to Haliburton County, should it start some kind of transit service, and still participate in whatever service is provided by the community transportation grant.
The answer to that is yes.
“Yes, the Municipality of Highlands East is able to participate in both the Community Transportation (CT) Grant Program at the same time as being a partner in a potential start up for the County of Haliburton,” a communications officer with the MTO wrote in an email to the paper. “The CT program is separate and the allocation of funding for the Gas Tax program is not linked to CT, i.e., population was not used in any formula for CT like it is for Gas Tax.”
That said, if Highlands East were to reallocate its gas tax funding to Haliburton County, it would put the Friday bus service it currently receives from BCT in question. It should be noted that the specialized medical transit BCT provides to clients in Wilberforce, Harcourt and Cardiff would continue. If Highlands East wanted to continue with whatever project comes about as a result of the grant funding after the five-year period, and if it were allotting its gas tax funding to Haliburton County, it would then have to use money from a different pot to continue public transit service with BCT.
All of these complicating factors boiled over when Coish visited county council chambers on May 9.
“Are you aware that for over two years, we’ve had an MTO-sponsored transportation initiative within Haliburton County?” Minden Hills Mayor Brent Devolin asked Coish. Devolin was referring to the Haliburton County Community Transportation Pilot Project, which was started with a grant from the MTO, and the work of the local transportation task force. County council allotted $50,000 in its 2018 budget for the creation of a transportation implementation plan, for which it has not yet released a request for proposals.
Coish responded that she was currently aware of that, but had not been at the time she submitted the grant application.
“It gets things off to a bit of a rocky start,” Devolin continued. “I find it a bit presumptuous that you would consider talking about an expansion of service into territory that, really, you’ve had no dialogue with, other than perhaps a limited basis, Highlands East . . . so, when you made the submission for the $500,000 . . . was there a business model as it relates to Haliburton County?”
Coish explained later in the meeting that any future service to Haliburton or Minden had not been included in the grant application.
“The grant that I applied for, the intention was to enhance the service in the Cardiff, Wilberforce areas,” she said.
She said the idea of running some transit to Haliburton and Minden had come from a survey of BCT clients. She told the paper one client is an elderly woman who has a daughter that lives in Haliburton County, for example. Such a service would be akin to what it runs into the City of Belleville, which operates its own transportation system.
“The service that we provide in Belleville is how we want to tailor this one,” she told councillors. “We provide specialized transportation in a city that has public transportation. We don’t do the public transportation in Belleville, however, we’ve got clients that need to go to dialysis.”
Coish reiterated several times throughout the meeting she thought there’d been a misunderstanding as to BCT’s intent, and said she fully supported whatever transportation project county council might choose to undertake.
“The intention wasn’t to step on anyone’s toes,” Coish told councillors. “We did this with the initiative of just enhancing our current service with our partners. The intent was not to come in a big, white horse, it was to come in and enhance the current service we’re providing. My apologies if that’s the way it came across.”
There was much discussion about gas tax funding, and whether Highlands East would be “double-dipping,” which is not permitted, if it were part of the community transportation grant programming, as well as any system that might be started in the county.
“I think one of the big questions . . . is about whether the MTO fund and the gas tax, and if you are eligible for both, and we have heard varying opinions on that,” said Highlands East Deputy Mayor and Haliburton County Warden Suzanne Partridge.
“I’m kind of caught in a bad place here, right now, and I’m not really warm and fuzzy about it,” said Highlands East Mayor Dave Burton. “I guess . . . we have a lot of people who put a lot of hard work into the Haliburton County initiative, and here I am now, I feel like I’m cutting in on it, in a not very nice way, and I’m just wondering if there’s a way that, should we choose, that we can get out,” Burton said. A number of members of the county’s transportation task force were in council chambers for the meeting.
Burton reiterated that Highlands East council, or least he, himself, had not been aware of the grant application.
“I certainly didn’t know anything about it . . . and I’m certainly caught here, blind-sided a bit, and I’m just not sure if I like sitting in this position,” he said.
Coish said that when she’d visited Highlands East council in March, “it was mentioned at that time, that if you participated in this grant, you couldn’t participate in the Haliburton County tax initiative, and that is not true.”
As stated earlier in this article, the MTO has confirmed to the newspaper that Highlands East would be able to do both, under provincial regulations.
“The application went in with an established set of partners,” Coish said. “We weren’t trying to take anything over, we just want to enhance the current service that we had.”
At the conclusion of the hour-long discussion, it was decided that county staff would contact the MTO for clarification on regulations around gas tax funding. Coish was still scheduled to meet the county’s transportation task force to discuss potential collaboration, and county council will wait for Highlands East council to decide what it’s going to do before proceeding with the request for proposals for its transportation implementation plan.
“At some point, Highlands East is obviously going to have to, when that clarification is made, a decision is going to have to be made by Highlands East about which way they are going to go, and if they’re going to have a foot in both camps,” said Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt. “And I think that, once that decision is made, then it would come back here.”
Partridge said she’d like to see a recommendation come out from the discussion between the transportation task force and BCT. County planner Charlsey White asked if there was any time constraint in terms of BCT’s grant funding. Coish responded that the parties probably had until the summer to come to some kind of decision.
“By all means, an amendment can be made to our grant,” she said. “If you decide that you don’t want to participate in that, that’s completely fine, there’s nothing binding anyone to participate or not participate.”
Dysart et al Mayor Murray Fearrey stressed that a decision from Highlands East would be required before the county council could proceed with its plans.
“I don’t know if we can go ahead with our RFP with our consultant, if we don’t have the decision from Highlands East,” Fearrey said, “So that needs to be sorted out.”