Public transportation plans pose challenges
By Chad Ingram
Published Dec. 19, 2017
County councillors talked about public transit options during a Dec. 13 meeting, albeit with some skepticism.
The county’s transportation task force, which was formed during a community transportation summit in November of last year, has submitted a business case for a public transportation system, with a number of model options, to the county.
“The County of Haliburton is not currently serviced by a comprehensive public transportation service,” the submission reads. “There are a number of transportation services through local agencies/municipalities available within specific locations and/or to a specific segment of the population. The existing transportation patchwork does not meet the current needs of all residents within the county.
“A municipal transportation service, provided for all residents and visitors, would have a positive impact on life, work and play within the county.”
According to the report, which uses data from the 2016 census, between 20 and 30 per cent of the county’s population does not drive, due to age, disability, income or choice.
“The goal of most transportation is to access desired services and activities (e.g. work, school, shopping, recreation, healthcare),” the report from the task force continues.
“In a rural community, it is easy to equate transportation to driving a car. Distances between destinations are great, and for most people, getting into a personal vehicle is the way they get around. However, in a community of any size, a multi-modal transportation system ensures that everyone, including non-drivers, have viable transportation options. A well planned transportation system can also help to reduce congestion and wear on roads and also reduces air pollution from passenger vehicles. An affordable transportation service can also help to reduce transportation budgets for government-funded agencies.”
One option would use school buses, during the hours they are not being used transporting students to and from school, and offer five fixed routes throughout the county, at fixed times, for a fixed fare. According to the submission, operating such a service five days a week would cost approximately $500,000 a year.
A booked, shared ride service would use one or two smaller, accessible passenger vehicles, that would travel flexible routes that would vary by day, depending on whom has booked rides. A scheduler would design each day’s route.
Costed out on the basis of two vehicles travelling 4.5 hours a day, that option would cost about $250,000 a year for a five-day-a-week service. A similar model using a passenger van would cost about $190,000 for the year, for service five days a week.
A blended model – using a school bus to run fixed routes between Minden and Haliburton, and smaller passenger vehicle to run flexible routes, with passengers transferring between the two – would cost approximately $315,000 to operate five days a week.
“We are not going to be able to go door-to-door and pick everybody up, and that’s something the task force has acknowledged,” county planner Charlsey White told councillors. Any system would involve the establishment of pick-up points.
Funding is available for municipalities to assist with transportation services. Under the Ontario Dedicated Gas Tax Funds for Public Transportation Program, municipalities can receive up to 75 per cent of the amount they spend on transit from the province’s gas tax fund. However, that program does not fund pilot projects. White told councillors the county would qualify a new $30 million funding program from the MTO, geared toward under-serviced and rural municipalities, and may be able to get some startup funding that way.
Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt had many questions regarding the proposal from the transportation task force.
“I think this is a really big conversation, and I think it’s important to ask the question now,” Moffatt said.
Moffatt noted that a system running from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. would not be of much help to those trying to get to work. She also had concerns around public safety – particularly that of youth and seniors – at pick-up points.
“How do we ensure pick-up points are safe?” Moffatt asked, noting that the county would have to face issues of liability.
“That, again, would have to be worked out,” White said. “Not a perfect system.”
While routes to Dorset had been included in some of the proposed models, Moffatt noted that the majority of residents travel to Huntsville, not Minden or Haliburton, for various needs. She also had questions around exactly how a system that involved booking rides would work. Would people book their medical appointments first, then their bus rides, or vice versa? What about cancellations?
“My concern is that there are some very real logistical barriers,” Moffatt said.
The county has attempted transportation in the past, although not for many years. Its expansive geography and sparse population provide a challenge.
Dysart et al Mayor Murray Fearrey reiterated how far spread out the county’s communities are.
“It’s easy to identify needs, I can tell you that, but solutions are a lot tougher,” he said.
Fearrey suggested that, if getting people to and from work was to be the main goal of a transportation service, then perhaps designing one that offered rides at the beginning and end of the standard workday made sense.
“I know all public transportation systems operate at a loss,” said Dysart et al Deputy Mayor Andrea Roberts. Roberts said she was wondering where the threshold was; how much money council would be willing to spend on a service.
“There will be a loss,” said county chief administrative officer Mike Rutter. “It is a reality.”
Rutter said the introduction of a public transportation system in Haliburton County represented a cultural shift.
“There are cultural changes,” Rutter said. “It is a really different culture than we are used to up here.”
Minden Hills Mayor Brent Devolin, noting that more and more younger people do not own their own vehicles, said it was clear there is a demand for public transit in the community.
“The public has an appetite, we have to do it,” Devolin said.
Algonquin Highlands Deputy Mayor Liz Danielsen said that while a transportation service may work for Minden Hills and Dysart, which house the county’s main communities, she wasn’t so sure it would be effective in the farther flung and more rural municipalities.
“I just don’t see it being a successful program for places like Highlands East and Algonquin Highlands,” Danielsen said.
A staff report regarding the creation of a transportation model will come back to council.