By Greg Price
A dream seven years in the making, the Taber and District Handi-Bus Association’s new bus has arrived to help the elderly and those with mobility issues.
“We were at the point that we were saturated with ridership and it became apparent that we would be needing a new bus,” said Paul Primeau, president of the Taber and District Handi-Bus Association, in explaining a bit of the history of the association’s quest.
When the service first started in the area seven years ago, there were 700 rides taken in a year. Now, there is 13,000 rides for the association’s old eight-seater bus.
“We created a new bus selection committee where we went to different organizations like Lethbridge and Brooks to take a look at their handi-buses to get a feel what kind of buses were out there,” said Primeau. “We did a needs assessment out in the community itself to see what we were going to require for the bus.”
The new handi-bus is 24-feet long, four feet longer than the old bus, making for much more capacity.
“It has more capacity for wheelchair riders, along with how the bus restrains and holds those riders, is top of the line with Q restraints,” said Primeau.
The new handi-bus has a mechanical ramp with a rider-friendly incline on it for ease of loading and unloading of customers with differing levels of mobility, as opposed to a wheel chair lift.
“Our new bus is equipped with a winch system. Some of our electrical wheelchairs are very heavy, so with the winch system, you can hook it onto the wheelchair itself with the rider in it, and pull them onto the ramp,” said Primeau. “These Q restraints are designed such a way inside the bus so that the floor is level. The Q restraints slip right into these small mounts, so they are out of the way and the floor is still level. There is no trip hazard and it allows us to lower our riders with wheelchairs safely by not having to stand behind them while lowering them. The ramp is accordion style and folds into itself, there is a heater on the inside so there is never any ice build up.”
Needs assessments also called for strong air conditioning for its users, and keeping the elderly cool was essential for the new bus.
“For a lot of our older people, temperatures have an adverse affect on them. So we bought a bus that has 160,000 BTU value of air conditioning in it. It’ll blow your hat right off,” chuckled Primeau.
All the inherent safety features within the Taber and District Handi-Bus Association’s new vehicle go above and beyond what is required by law for handi-buses.
“We have the mirrors for the driver to see and the driver has his own area where he is separated from the riders, so that no one can obstruct him while he is trying to drive the bus,” said Primeau. “There is an intercom system so that we can give directions to our visually-impaired patrons to let them know they are at their destination. There are isolation cooling features on the bus so that if you want to top off some fluids, you can isolate it and repair it without having to drain the whole thing.”
Each of the drivers for the Taber and District Handi-Bus Association have been fully orientated with the new bus, to go along with first-aid certificates, restraint certificates and licenses that are up to date.
The new handi-bus has a non-wheelchair seating capacity of 14.
Other seating capacity options include two wheelchairs and 10 riders, or three wheelchairs and eight riders.
“That gives us the versatility with the new bus to more selectively understand how we can transport people with the same needs at the same time,” said Primeau. “The idea of that is rather than shuttling one person with a wheelchair through town, we can now do three and we hope to see some economy of scale in the cost to operate the bus by combining ridership with the same needs.”
The Taber and District Handi-Bus Association is attempting to transition to a more concrete schedule of pick ups and drop offs for its customer base.
“Going to places like Linden View, instead of transporting that one person in a wheelchair, we will transport three people. It will really help with our fuel economy and it will help the people who are riding the bus with their chance to ride with their friends for companionship,” said Primeau. “It’s not just to optimize how the rides happen, but by doing that we can increase our ridership.”
The new handi-bus comes in with a price tag of $153,000. A fundraising campaign was done for almost 18 months where the association was blown away by the generosity of both the Town of Taber and M.D. of Taber councils, and surrounding business community and citizenry. The Taber and District Handi-Bus Association was also able to garner a $75,000 grant through the Community Initiatives Program.
“There has been a tremendous amount of excitement. The town and the M.D. really worked well collaboratively in helping us achieve our goal,” said Primeau. “For the grant, we filled out an application and we were interviewed over the phone where they were interested in our business plan and what our plans were moving into the future. They were very gracious in helping us close the gap in our existing fundraising money and what we needed in topping off our savings.”
The Taber and District Handi-Bus Association test drove eight different handi-buses. They took the buses to various spots like Linden View, Clearview, and Parkside Manor and took them for rides.
“Some said ‘I don’t like this bus’ and ‘I don’t like that bus.’ But, the bus we ended up buying was the most widely accepted as ‘This is a fantastic bus, we can’t wait to get in it’,” said Primeau.
The Taber and District Handi-Bus Association still has plans to get use out of its old bus, although there are now 239,000 kilometres on it.
“With the old bus, we are planning on doing more excursions into the M.D. At this particular time, about 85 per cent of all our rides happen right in Taber,” said Primeau. “We are planning on making it an event bus.”
Being the Taber and District Handi-Bus Association, drivers venture into the M.D. of Taber area for pick up. It has run to Vauxhall, but the association is looking into streamlining pick up and drop off times there to maximize ridership in areas the association has to travel the furthest to.
“It allows our people that have so much to contribute to our community, but can’t because they are transportation limited. A lot of our elderly folks, they have already gone through their volunteerism and have been part of their community. But because they don’t have the transportation to get back into the community, all that knowledge and spirit of community is lost,” said Primeau. “So we are committed to safe and affordable transportation. This allows our elderly people to get into our community so that they can pass on all their skills and knowledge and community spirit to the next generation.”
Rides with the new handi-bus are $4 per pick up. There are bus passes also for $40 for 10 rides, with the 11th ride free.
“Our prices have not gone up for years and years,” said Primeau.
To thank the community for their support of the new handi-bus, the vehicle will be decorated by the Taber Special Needs Society and entered and showcased at the Taber Cornfest Parade on Aug. 23. On Cornfest Friday and Saturday, free rides will be offered to all the membership of the Taber and District Handi-Bus Association so that everyone has a chance to take in Western Canada’s biggest free festival.
To be eligible for a ride on the Taber and District Hand-Bus, a resident must be on a membership list where a certain amount of requirements are met.
“We need to understand who our riders are. What their disability is, what their special care needs are so that our drivers can respond to their needs as required,” said Primeau, adding drivers are equipped with the membership lists. “So to become a member of the Taber Handi-Bus, we have an application form, and if you meet that criteria that was determined by the board and it’s things like age, disability which are standard, then we put you on the membership list and then we are available after that to provide the service.”
After the showcasing of the new handi-bus at Cornfest, plans are for the new bus to be up and fully operational around mid-to-late September. With demand for the handi-bus increasing nearly twentyfold in less than a decade, beyond raising awareness of the organization with the Taber and District Handi-bus Association, Primeau added it mirrors the changing demographics of the southern Alberta area.
“More and more young people are leaving rural communities like Taber and moving to the city. More and more elderly people are moving from the farms to the smaller communities so that they can still be around the farm. Our population demographically speaking is getting older. That is a trend not only in Taber but all of Alberta (Baby Boomers),” said Primeau.
The Taber and District Handi-Bus Association is asking for some patience from the public with the new handi-bus. Being four feet longer to offer more capacity for riders means some parking issues are going to arise in doing pick ups and drop offs.
“Because it’s longer than the old bus, drop off and pick up points in town may be changed in the future. We are currently working with the Taber Police Service and town council to get a better understanding of what the best place that we can put our handi-bus signs to drop off and pick up our people on the ridership membership list,” said Primeau. “We are going to ask people to be patient. It’s going to be well marked. We are still working through it and it is dynamic. The intention is to work with the town to see where we can have designated parking to have this service for a 24-foot bus as opposed to a 20-foot bus. Every 20 minutes, this bus is picking up or dropping off someone. We do not stay in one place too long, but if we happen to be in front of you, wait a few minutes and we will be on our way.”