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.”