Review of regional transit shows potential for Ponoka

BOLT bus system is open to looking at more options for regional public transportation

A look at the BOLT Transit bus system shows there is some potential for Ponoka to join in.

In response to reader comments on our web poll related to joining BOLT, Ponoka News researched the actual costs of the system and what it could mean to be part of it.

The system is a joint effort between the City of Lacombe and the Town of Blackfalds with shared operations with the City of Red Deer. The future of the relatively new system remains unclear as Lacombe councillors recently voted 4-3 to keep it. Part of that uncertainty appears to be due to BOLT seeing cost recovery at just 21 per cent.

Town of Blackfalds CAO Myron Thompson spoke to Ponoka News about a recent review of the system and what is being done to see a greater cost recovery.

“It definitely fills a niche for those that want public transportation or those that need public transportation,” said Thompson.

A review of the system published in May shows that most intra-city transit systems are subsidized but see cost recovery at 30 to 40 per cent.

A cost recovery comparison in the review shows that BOLT sits at $60,561 in revenue while expenses sit at $285,377. The closest service in terms date being established falls to Fort Saskatchewan (2014) with revenue at $147,808 and expenses at $1.43 million. The Fort’s cost recovery is at 10 per cent.

Red Deer’s transit system has been around the longest in the comparison (1966) with revenue at $5.5 million and expenses at $16.4 million. Airdrie’s system was established in 1980 and it saw the most in terms of cost recovery with $1.3 million in revenue and $2.3 in expenses (57 per cent cost recovery).

“While the service attracts riders throughout the day, the bulk of users are focused during the peak commuting periods. Saturday ridership trends 60 to 90 per cent lower depending on the season (Saturdays do operate on a reduced schedule of three trips daily),” states the review.

Thompson pointed out that Lacombe and Blackfalds were able to take advantage of some grant funding for BOLT but planners knew from the start there would be need for growth. “Nothing starts and is totally operating at maximum capacity.”

“When it comes to municipal operations, they’re not self-funded,” said Thompson, comparing other services such as recreation facilities, which can see cost-recovery at about 50 per cent.

On a per subsidy per household level, the review states costs at about $46.87 per household to subsidize the service. That is a big difference compared to Red Deer with an estimated per household subsidy of $285.

Thompson said BOLT planners are on the way to improvements. Most recently Burman University in Lacombe has signed on for a universal bus pass system for its students. “I think that we could possibly see 35 to 40 per cent by the end of 2019. That’s what we’re hoping for.”

He added that a new oversight committee, made up of administration and elected officials, could further benefit the service.

BOLT operations started September 2015 with that first month seeing 1,605 users. 2016 appears to be the year that ridership was high with a total of 20,149 riders for the year. In 2017 that number dropped by about 400 with a total of 19,751.

The BOLT review also points out that January 2018 ridership saw 1,953 riders during that month.

Ridership in 2017 shows higher numbers in the morning with an average of 19.2 people per trip taking the morning express route. That number drops quite a bit in the mid to early afternoon with 7.1 and 7.6 people per trip.

“We have a very young demographic but our older age group, we’re starting to see a growth in the population,” said Thompson.

He pointed out that changes have been made to the BOLT’s routes as well as efforts to improve service times. As the population increases in the area and community boundaries get closer together, Thompson suggests the transit system will become even more important.

Could Ponoka join?

The offer stands for other municipalities to join the system.

When asked about Ponoka joining BOLT, Thompson said while those discussions have not yet occurred with the town, the oversight committee would be able to sit down and consider options.

“A lot of communities are looking at establishing some methods of transportation, whether it be a handy bus or a contracted service,” said Thompson.

With the loss of Greyhound, the discussion of a regional bus service becomes more important, he added.

Web poll results

After the overwhelming votes in favour of joining BOLT in Ponoka News’ first poll, the follow up question related to subsidizing it.

Of the 72 votes to the more recent question: If Ponoka were to join BOLT Transit, do you think the town should help subsidize its operations? readers are split.

Thirty one people (43 per cent) voted in favour of the question while 32 (44 per cent) voted against the idea. The remaining nine votes (13 per cent) were unsure.

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