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Hard questions needed in debate over bus routes

Woolwich councillors dropped the ball Tuesday night, failing to kill in its tracks any talk of extending a bus to Breslau. Worse still, they had just heard some dismal numbers for the Elmira/St. Jacobs bus, which continues to siphon money to little benefit.

Operating the bus costs more than $600,000 a year, with Woolwich residents as a whole on the hook for $485,000 after revenues are deducted – fares account for only a quarter of the cost.

Only reaching the target of recovering 25 per cent of its costs from the farebox – 28 per cent in 2014 – the route has a long way to go before reaching a far more viable 50 per cent cost recovery. That figure is beyond the pale for Grand River Transit, where only a handful of well-travelled routes make that grade – the system as a whole doesn’t come close to the national average pushing 60 per cent.

Breaking down the ridership numbers makes the situation even less palatable. For 2014, route 21 as a whole averaged some 387 riders each day (774 daily boardings, divided by two to represent return trips). Given that fully 70 per cent of trips involved stops between Conestoga Mall (41 per cent, by far the largest) and St. Jacobs, it’s a fair assumption that many of those riders are not township residents. Even at an optimistic 300 Woolwich riders, the $485,000 price tag works out to more than $1,600 a year per township user of the bus.

Is that good value? That was never discussed when the bus was launched as a pilot project in 2009, and such questions have never been asked by Woolwich councillors or anyone at the region, where they’re pushing ahead with a transit fiasco of epic proportions, one that can’t be undone quickly, unlike route 21.

Few people here would argue it’s a bad idea to have a bus service connecting Elmira and St. Jacobs to Waterloo and, thus, the rest of the transit system in the region. It’s something of a motherhood issue. Yes, transit is a good idea. But how much? And at what cost?

To date, ridership numbers show relatively few residents are making use of the service. Those who do use it likely want to see it continue. But the costs will be borne by everyone, the overwhelming majority of whom will never set foot on a bus. The price tag represents the equivalent of about a five-per-cent tax hike – every year – making it a significant expenditure for the township.

In pondering whether route 21 should continue – there’s no case to be made for a Breslau service where demand would be even smaller – the decision for councillors, then, is does that money represent good value? Where does transit fall in the list of government services? Through our taxes, we all pay for services we don’t use and which don’t provide us any benefit. But we recognize there’s a social value in them, at least in some cases. That’s certainly true to some extent with transit, but what level of service is sufficient as a community good?

The real question is, however, what are we prepared to give up in order to pay for it? To date, councils, both township and regional, have been happy simply to slap an ever-growing tax burden on residents without any thought to usefulness, accountability or efficacy. In short, the same philosophy it applies to just about every spending decision.

Until that changes, and spending is brought under control, there should be no thought given to adding to the burden, especially with useless pet projects.

Anything else shows contempt for the public.

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