By Nikki Jamieson
A second handibus could lead to more ridership in the Municipal District of Taber.
During their regular March 28 meeting, the Municipal District of Taber were visited by Paul Primeau, president of the Taber and District Handibus Association, who came to make a budget presentation.
Starting off by talking about the growing population of seniors in Alberta, Primeau said that according to Transport Canada, older Canadians use public transportation more then anyone else. However, those living in rural areas tend to not have access to that infrastructure. Primeau cited statistics saying that in the next ten years, the population of those 65 years old and older will increase by 40 per cent, and that figure will double in the next 20 years.
“For those who live in a rural area, lack of transportation is a top concern,” said Primeau. “Here, we’re talking being involved in the community, being able to go to the doctor, being able to get groceries, and if we don’t transport our people, they sit at home and isolate, which is no good for anyone.”
He then talked about how fewer youth are staying in rural areas, choosing instead to migrate towards larger urban centres. However, council pointed out that they had a rather unique situation within their boundaries, as the average age of a person living in the M.D. is 27 years old, with M.D. reeve Brian Brewin adding, “we are a little bit off of the norm”.
Undeterred, Primeau explained that in the next decade, if the general trend continues, there will be a higher proportion of seniors living in rural areas compared to youth.
Additionally, ridership levels for the Handibus have been steadily rising, as in 2009, they provided 700 rides, while in 2016, they gave around 10,000 rides, although he estimates it as being closer to 11,000 rides. In the last four years alone, they have averaged about 9,000 rides per year.
“Today, every 20 minutes, that handibus is dropping off or picking up somebody, which is a far cry — 11,000 rides from 700 is a big difference,” said Primeau, adding they have started optimizing ride routes. “The idea again, is not to run that bus all over town, but to understand where our needs are of our clientele, and to move that bus around, almost as if you’re thinking of city transport, the same idea of routes.”
Helping matters is a newly-hired dispatcher, working out of a newly-rented space in the Taber Special Needs building. In addition to taking care of the administrative side of things for the association, she also doubles as a bus driver if needed.
With that hire, they have developed brochures about passenger and driver standards, applied for grants and developed a database on riders. They also hope to purchase a second bus by July, and expand their operational hours from 10 hours/day to running 12 hours/day by June 2017.
Finally, as they currently are limited to operating throughout the town of Taber, with the addition of the second bus, they hope to start transporting people throughout the M.D. Although they had tried to do that a few years ago and failed, Primeau says that now they are in a better place to try again.
“We feel that we’re in a better position now to try again to expand our service. We feel that there’s a way to piggy-back that expansion of service with a new bus — when we get our new bus, that’ll give us two buses — so there is a, one of the thoughts we had, is to have the one bus in town, one bus out of town. Whatever that looks like, it’s what we’re starting to examine right now.”
Primeau believes that soon, they may hit the 13,000 ridership mark. As they have no plans to raise their ridership fares, to achieve their goals, they are asking for $7,000 from the M.D. in funding this year, up from $5,000 the previous year. Additionally, according to their three-year budget forecast, in 2018, should service in the M.D. go up, they plan on asking for $15,000, and in 2019, $17,000.
Currently, as not many M.D. resident can access the handibus, the M.D. funds a small portion, or about 0.055 per cent of the proposed 2017 budget. However, an increase in service within the M.D. would lead to them funding a higher percentage.
“Moving into the future, if there is an increase in service, we’re looking at an increase in the budget,” said Bob Wallace, M.D. councillor, reminding Primeau that they have ratepayers living at Clearview Lodge or Linden View. “But if there is no increase in service, if it is not warranted, than we’ll look at that as well. There’s limited things they can do with one bus. With the second bus, the more trips out of town (they can do).”
“Going out into the outlying areas is still maybe a dream or a future look, it’s not something that we’re ready to do right now, not until you have a second bus, not until you investigate all other options, there’s different municipalities involved there. So year two of this plan is really a futuristic look.”
Coun. Ben Elfring noted that the M.D. of Willow Creek had multiple handibuses that service their entire municipality, saying that in order for it to work, “people got to come on board and watch it grow”.
“Coming to the M.D. and expanding our service, it’s not, it’s evolutionary but it’s not revolutionary,” said Primeau. “There is still a lot of learning we have to gain.”
After Primeau left, Wallace told council that the request could be approved when they finalized their 2017 budget, and when they did their interim budget, they didn’t have the request in yet. Currently, the M.D. has $5,000 approved interim budget for Taber Handibus, and would need to approve an additional $2,000 should they approve their request.
“I can justify that for salaries, in order to look into other options to facilitate them,” said Brewin.
Council passed a motion to revisit the Taber Handibus grant when they do their final budget.