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Woolwich nixes additional expenditures for bus route

Simply throwing money at the system won’t improve Grand River Transit service in Elmira, say Woolwich councillors, who voted Monday night not to increase the budget for route 21. Extending evening hours would have seen township taxpayers on the hook for another $73,000 a year on top of the $500,000 budget.

While agencies that provide transportation to clients in Woolwich, including Community Care Concepts and Kiwanis Transit, made a case for enhanced GRT services, councillors pointed to low ridership and existing deficiencies in opting against a budget increase.

Among those opposed to new spending, Coun. Patrick Merlihan called for GRT to improve the route without spending money, noting staff has been reluctant to support any of the suggestions raised by the townships.

“Maybe a small route in Woolwich doesn’t work the way that a route does in Kitchener-Waterloo, and they’re completely unwilling to make it work for us,” he said. “They’re a contractor – we’re paying for this service – but we’re paying for only the service that they’re going to give us. We’re supposed to be partners, and it didn’t feel like any partnership.”

Among the changes proposed is swapping out the full-size bus for a smaller vehicle, such as being used in a pilot project to extend GRT service to New Hamburg. Coun. Mark Bauman was a vocal advocate for that option, having seen nearly empty buses roll past his St. Jacobs home due to detours on King Street.

“It’s given me a chance to see firsthand what the ridership is on the bus,” he explained. “On a daily basis, several times a day, I was seeing how many people were riding the bus, and very seldom did I need more than one hand to count the riders on the bus – I would say an average of three people were on a bus that’s capable of holding 30 or more people.”

The low ridership on most of the route – the numbers are slightly higher between Conestoga Mall and the farmers’ market – make smaller buses the better choice for financial and environmental reasons, said Bauman.

“I’d love to hear people coming here complaining that there’s not enough room to get on the buses, that we need to add more people, but that is not the problem. In most cases, a minivan would serve the amount of people that were going by my house – that’s the sad fact about what’s happening with route 21.

“I’m reluctant to spend more taxpayers’ dollars for having large buses going up and down our streets that are virtually empty.”

Ridership numbers, which grew from 107,000 in 2012 to 119,000 in 2014 and remained unchanged in 2015, have fallen by 28 per cent this year. GRT puts part of the blame on delays due to the King Street construction, but ridership is down throughout the region, and indeed across North America, even as the population grows.

Lower numbers are also in contrast to demand for transportation through community groups and agencies.

Addressing councillors Dec. 19, Kiwanis Transit manager Cheryl Fisher said ridership demand is up about seven per cent a year. The agency this year provided some 49,000 rides to 2,100 clients in Woolwich, Wellesley and Wilmot townships.

Since GRT service began in Woolwich with a pilot project in 2009, many rides have been transferred from the specialized Kiwanis Transit system to route 21, which provides more flexible options for those physically able to use the bus, she explained.

Any enhancements to the route would help lower the demand for rides from groups such as Kiwanis Transit, Community Care Concepts, Woolwich Community Services and Elmira District Community Living, Fisher noted.

“We know we can’t do it alone.”

It was the same message from Cathy Harrington, executive director of Community Care Concepts.

Having public transit available takes some of the pressure off of her organization, which arranges transportation for clients who need to get to medical appointments and other services, she said.

Her agency arranges about 7,500 rides for some 5,000 clients (45 per cent from Woolwich Township) each year. It can’t meet the current demand – the agency has a budget for 4,500 rides, well below what it’s actually doing – so relies on Kiwanis Transit and GRT to handle the overflow.

While sympathetic with the issues raised by the agencies, the majority of councillors stayed focused on the low ridership numbers.

When Mayor Sandy Shantz, who along with Coun. Larry Shantz spearheaded the proposed revisions to the service, suggested approving the plan just to get the item in the 2017 regional budget, Bauman shot down the idea.

“Once it’s in the budget, it’s going to be expected that we spend that much money. I’m trying to not get it in the budget,” he stressed. “I’m not looking to expand our budget, so there should be no urgency to get it in the budget.”

For Coun. Murray Martin, the falling percentage of costs recouped from users remains a major stumbling block.

Pointing to low ridership numbers, he said the route has failed to catch on since it began as a pilot project in 2009.

At the beginning, the goal was to recover 40 per cent of the costs from fares, but that number has now fallen to 20 per cent.

“We’re subsidizing that thing by 80 per cent, which I don’t think is acceptable – you can’t even make a good business case,” he said. “The funding formula is totally wrong. It needs to be at least 50 per cent by ridership … to make it feasible for me.”

Councillors expect to spend time at a future meeting developing goals for another round of discussions with GRT officials.

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