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Bus debate about making wise spending choices

Mired in a losing streak at the tables in Vegas, some people will double down. Others will walk away, cutting their losses.

Woolwich faces a similar situation in looking at expanding service despite falling ridership and revenue for Grand River Transit route 21.

In place for more than seven years now, the bus route connecting Elmira and St. Jacobs to the GRT hub at Conestoga Mall has never blossomed. Its numbers are in fact down for the last couple of years. Construction delays in St. Jacobs hit the route hard this summer, and there’ll be more of the same next year, but the declines are in keeping with trends throughout not just the region but North America-wide.

In looking at ways to boost ridership on the local route, Woolwich is pondering the extension of evening hours. Some of the few comments received note the bus isn’t convenient/workable because it does not run in the evening – it doesn’t allow for returns later in the day, or evening trips to Waterloo. Despite the reservations of many councillors, the township plans to consult the public for its input on that plan.

Nothing wrong with consulting with people. Councillors will have to be mindful of the same pitfalls that occurred during the trial period of route 21: few respondents, and almost all of them turning out to support something of benefit to them.

This applies to many issues brought before council, of course, but the bias and statistically irrelevant numbers should be a factor in the township’s decisions, but sadly that’s not often the case.

High on the list of considerations is the cost. The extended hours would add another $83,000 a year to almost $500,000 the township is already paying for the limited number of users today. Only about a fifth of the cost is recovered through fares – quite casually, the already low target of 25 per cent recovery (thus 75 per cent subsidized by taxes) has been dropped to 20 per cent. With no guarantees of increased ridership, the tax hit could grow even larger.

Those taxes are collected by the region through a township-wide levy,  meaning everyone in Woolwich pays for it without even the potential to use the service.

There are few arguments against public transit. But, as last week’s debate at Woolwich council clearly shows, there is much to discuss about the costs, specifically the cost-benefit analysis.

The numbers show only a few hundred people use the bus. That’s beneficial, but does it warrant the cost? That not only applies to the proposed expansion, but to keeping the service altogether. There appears to be no appetite around the council table for cancelling the bus despite the poor numbers, but the township should tread lightly in looking to spend yet more money. Even more so in considering the extension of services to Breslau, where ridership numbers are likely to be lower still, while expenses remain high, perhaps in the same range as the Elmira route.

As with all services, the question that typically goes unasked by councillors and bureaucrats is, what are we prepared to give up in order to pay for it? Instead of prioritizing needs versus wants, all too often politicians simply slap on another expense, forcing taxpayers to pick up the tab.

Before going to the public and making a decision on route 21 – and back to the well they often deem bottomless – officials should look at the long list of fiscal priorities, factoring in taxpayer fatigue.

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