They may be few in number, but those who use Grand River Transit route 21 are really eager to keep the bus service rolling in Woolwich.
The township has heard from vocal supporters as it ponders what stance to take on the service. Started in April 2009 as a one-year pilot project, the service has twice been extended. However, after the end of this year, Woolwich will have to begin paying for the service – some $450,000 a year – or it will be cancelled.
The expense would require a 2.6-per-cent increase on the Waterloo Region portion of property tax bills, adding $38.23 a year to the average residential property valued at $242,000.
To gauge the public’s appetite for the cost, the township held an open house in June, receiving written and online submissions since then. So far, all of the feedback has been favourable, says the township’s economic development and tourism officer.
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Laurel Davies Snyder presented a report to council Tuesday night, highlighting some of the preliminary findings. She expects to make a recommendation to councillors on Aug. 30, allowing them to make a decision and provide comments to the region ahead of a Sept. 9 deadline.
“Overall, 100 per cent of the feedback received through the process was in full support for keeping public transit, specifically bus route 21 in Woolwich Township,” she reported, adding those who use the service want to see it made permanent and even enhanced.
Davies Snyder said her findings show the benefits of public transit go beyond transportation, providing economic, social and recreational opportunities. A large number of riders take the bus to get to and from work, an economic benefit that helps people get to their jobs.
An on-bus poll of some 400 riders conducted in May by GRT shows a wide demographic among users of the service. The most commonly cited reasons for using the bus were work, school, recreation and shopping, appointments and accessing the farmers’ market, varying by age group.
“People are planning their activities and key lifestyle decisions around the fact that there is public transportation linking Woolwich Township to the rest of the region,” she said.
Don Harloff, executive director of Woolwich Community Services, told councillors the bus is a vital link for low-income residents, who face major transportation barriers.
“You’d be taking an important step for enhancing the lives of people living with low incomes,” he said of council support for continuing the bus service.
Currently, the service has yet to meet it ridership targets, though average ridership per service hour did hit 25 people.
“That’s our minimum service target,” Erica Springate, principal planner (transit) with the region, said in an interview Wednesday.
GRT numbers show ridership is growing, but it’s hovering around 22 boardings per service hour so far this year. In 2010, daily ridership was 309, up from 245 in 2009. The goal is to have 510 passengers a day by 2014.
Currently, fares cover about 25 per cent of the $507,000 annual cost – lower than the GRT’s route average of 37 per cent – with Woolwich taxpayers expected to cover the rest. That number would climb, however, if the region acted on requests to extend the service.
Davies Snyder said public input has shown a desire for a variety of improvements, including extended hours, Sunday service, more routes throughout Elmira and increased frequency. None of those is on the table just now, nor have there been any budget estimates for those changes. The same is true of Mayor Todd Cowan’s call for extending service along Kitchener’s Victoria Street to serve residents of Breslau.
One of the stumbling blocks for a township-wide transit levy is the fact the bus serves only residents of St. Jacobs and Elmira. Ward 3 Coun. Bonnie Bryant has heard from residents of Breslau, Maryhill and Conestogo, for instance, who are opposed to paying for a service that offers them no benefit.
Overall, however, councillors appear to be leaning towards recommending the service continue. The final decision rests with their regional counterparts, who are expected to vote on the issue Sept. 27.