Bus operators need to be encouraged to come here

By Denis Langlois, Sun Times, Owen Sound

Saturday, October 5, 2013 4:58:09 EDT PM

The closure of Owen Sound’s bus terminal and Greyhound’s decision to cut its routes to the city has put a spotlight on transportation issues in our area.

Specifically, it has highlighted the importance of intercity bus service to rural communities.

Students attending school in Toronto, London, Barrie and elsewhere, for example, rely on the bus to get to and from their rural Ontario homes.

People use the bus to get to hospitals in major Ontario cities, to visit family in southern Ontario and to access services not found locally. Some people just want to hop aboard a bus to spend time in Toronto.

Despite the need for bus transportation, options for people in rural Ontario, including Grey-Bruce, continue to decline.

Greyhound now only makes one trip daily into and out of Owen Sound. The bus takes people to Toronto via Collingwood and Barrie. Aboutown Northlink only makes a trip between Owen Sound and London three times a week.

People wanting to get to Orangeville, KitchenerWaterloo, Guelph, Hamilton or other cities must transfer to another bus in Toronto or London. It can be a long trip.

The provincial government should step up and do something about this transportation shortage. More should be done to encourage bus companies to make the trek to and from Owen Sound.

Part of the problem, it seems, is Ontario’s current regulatory framework for intercity bus transportation.

Companies must apply to the Ontario Highway Transport Board to receive a permit before it can operate a new route.

John Emberson, president of Coach Canada, said the process is time consuming and expensive. The applicant must provide a business plan, among other things, to the board.

Other companies can object to the permit request, he said, and the board will often side with the firm that currently offers the same or a similar route.

The process limits competition, he said, and can allow some companies to hold a monopoly on certain routes.

Coach Canada, which owns more than 200 buses, is among the companies lobbying the province to deregulate the system.

Alberta and Manitoba have done it. Alberta implemented a new modernized framework in 2011. Companies there now have the option of running a smaller bus for certain routes or creating a flexible schedule without, as happened in the past, having their application objected to by existing carriers, which would have triggered a full-blown hearing.

It’s time for Ontario to take a serious look at doing the same.

There are also calls from outside of the industry for the province to make changes to improve Ontario’s regional transportation network.

Owen Sound Mayor Deb Haswell, for one, has called on the province to explore ways to encourage more buses to run routes to the city.

The Southwest Economic Alliance (SWEA), meanwhile, is calling on both the provincial and federal governments “to work together to plan and adequately fund a regional transportation network.”

A summit, with politicians, transportation companies and advocacy groups, is scheduled for Nov. 14.

“The objective is to generate cooperation, planning and policy development which will lead to more transportation in southwestern Ontario,” SWEA says.

It is our hope that SWEA will have luck with its campaign.

However, it’s important that Owen Sound also benefit from any improved regional transportation system.

Without changes, the city could become even more isolated from the rest of southern Ontario.

Rally Monday in support of transit terminal

By Denis Langlois, Sun Times, Owen Sound

Friday, September 27, 2013 1:06:13 EDT PM

Just hours before Owen Sound’s bus terminal is to be closed for good, people plan to gather outside of the building to call on city council to keep it open.

The United Way of Bruce Grey decided to organize a “Don’t Kill the Terminal” rally, for Monday at 1 p.m., after being asked by many individuals and community organizations “to do something” about the impending closure, said executive director Francesca Dobbyn.

“We want to draw attention to this. We don’t want the quiet silence in the community to be misunderstood as acceptance or an endorsement of what city council has decided to do with the terminal,” she said in an interview.

The city is planning to permanently close the depot at 6:30 p.m. Monday. Council made the decision as a way to reduce the cost of the transit system.

Even though the building will be closed, the terminal property will still be used as a transfer point and bus stop until the city transitions from a four-route to a new three-route system, which is expected to happen this spring.

Coun. Peter Lemon served notice at a council meeting Sept. 23 that he will seek to bring back for discussion a staff report, which outlines the cost to keep the terminal building open for another six months, in hopes that council will reconsider its decision to simply “note and file” the document.

Dobbyn said the United Way, which does advocacy work in the community, has many concerns about terminal’s closure.

Riders, including “our most vulnerable consumers,” use the building for its washroom facilities, to seek shelter from the cold and rain and to receive assistance and information about the transit system, she said.

“The proposed concept of local small business owners providing tickets and information is well meaning, but few stores will be open early enough for those using the system in the morning, to provide shelter,” she said in a news release.

Bus drivers also rely on the terminal for its washrooms. It’s also a place for drivers to gather in the event of an emergency, she said.

Dobbyn said she would like the city to keep the terminal open at least over winter to provide time for a “community conversation” about what to do after it closes.

“We feel there is an out-of-the-box solution that can be realized through community engagement and consultation. The city will still have to heat, clean, plow and maintain the property, so the operating costs are not significant in savings,” she said.

A report by operations director Brad McRoberts said it would cost about $57,600 over the six-month “transition period” from a four-route to a three-route system to have the terminal open and a staff person stationed there during regular transit operating hours. Costs to clean the building and its washrooms each day as well as for utilities and a telephone line would also be covered.

The cost to keep the terminal open, without staffing the building, would be about $27,000 for six months. The Owen Sound Police Service strongly cautioned the city to not leave the building “unstaffed,” noting past “issues with illegal activity” there, McRoberts’ report said. City staff did not recommend that option.

City to move to three-route bus system

By Denis Langlois, Sun Times, Owen Sound

Monday, August 26, 2013 11:30:52 EDT PM

City council narrowly approved Monday night reducing the number of 30-minute routes serviced by its public transit system from four to three, despite fierce opposition from some councillors.

“I really think we’re making a mistake, a tragic mistake,” Coun. Peter Lemon said during the meeting.

He urged his council colleagues to maintain a four-route system and to call another public meeting to hear from transit users.

Councillors who supported moving to a three-route system disagreed with Lemon’s position that there is a “humungous” difference between the two models.

“I believe sincerely that a three-route system without a terminal will provide virtually the same service on virtually the same timetable” as a four-route system, Coun. Bill Twaddle said during the meeting.

The buses would cover virtually the same ground and continue to meet the needs of transit users, he said, while giving the city more gas tax revenue to spend on transit-related capital expenses.

It would also save the city an estimated $130,000 to $150,000 a year or $1.1 million over the life of the eight-year contract.

“If we have a chance to save taxpayers $150,000 a year, I think we should take it,” said Coun. Jim McManaman.

But Lemon said those estimated cost savings, which were provided to council by city staff, do not take into account the loss of revenue from losing riders.

Mayor Deb Haswell said she is confident “an improved three-route system” can be developed that will result in little impact to riders and ridership numbers.

City staff will work with the new transit operator to develop possible models for a three-route system. Users will be consulted, she said, before the three routes are finalized, she said.

Haswell said the city is facing serious financial pressures “and we have to simply watch where every dollar is being spent.”

Council voted 5-4 to move to a three-route system. Councillors Lemon, Colleen Purdon, Jan Chamberlain and Arlene Wright voted against the motion, which also approved hiring First Student Owen Sound to provide the service and its own buses for the next eight years.

The net annual cost of the First Student bid, when factoring in revenue from provincial gas tax and bus fares, is expected to be about $648,000 with the three-route system, according to a staff report to council.

The current system’s net cost for 2013 is $1.2 million.

A big chunk of the price increase from 2012 to 2013 is being blamed on the cost to repair and maintain the city’s fleet of buses buses.

Council has already approved closing the downtown bus terminal, hiking bus fares by 10% in 2013, 2014 and 2015 and ending Saturday service 90 minutes earlier.

Miller Transit, the current operator of Owen Sound’s transit system, also bid on the new eight-year contract, but the company’s proposal scored lower than the one presented by First Student and Miller’s cost was higher.

The city’s contract with Miller expires at the end of September.

The changes approved by council are to come into effect six months into the new contract, in April 2014.

Purdon also spoke out strongly against moving to a three-route system. She said the “future lies in using transit,” not reducing the service.

“People want more transit,” she said. “A four-route system is a better system.”