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Council needs to do the math on Elmira bus experiment

Woolwich residents temporarily dodged a bullet, at least in part, with the region’s decision to continue the Elmira bus pilot project rather than making it a permanent part of the Grand River Transit system.

Offered for free, the service is lightly used as it stands. Introduce fares and ridership will drop off, making the service even less defensible. But defend it the region has, issuing a report that provides little justification for continuing the circulator route given the cost to taxpayers.

Woolwich council, which gave rise to the experiment in the first place, was not consulted prior to this week’s decision by the region’s planning and works committee, which put aside staff’s recommendations in favour of another year of the status quo. Still, the township must be clear local taxpayers will not be saddled with the costs.

The project started with good intentions, with Kiwanis Transit looking to reduce its own growing costs – also taxpayer funded – by facilitating more ridership on Grand River Transit’s route 21. While it didn’t work out, the idea was worth a shot given the much higher cost of door-to-door speciality transportation offered by Kiwanis Transit in comparison to the regular bus service. Both are heavily subsidized, but the latter less so.

The plan was to boost ridership on the lightly used Waterloo-to-Elmira bus by running a pickup service in Elmira that feeds into the GRT system. Initially, Kiwanis Transit paid most of the costs, determining it was a less-expensive option for some of the users of its traditional services. The pilot project was then picked up by Grand River Transit, with the region now looking to make it a part of the system.

With a year under its belt, the service, which operates about seven hours per day, has nine boardings per hour. With the introduction of full GRT fares ($3.25), planners expect ridership to drop by a third. That’s probably optimistic, as most of the rides are in-town trips rather than connections to route 21, where the fare would net a transfer to the wider transit system. People who use the current service because it’s free aren’t likely to pay for the small convenience it brings to getting around Elmira.

Despite all of that, region planners think it a good idea to make the pilot project a permanent fixture, though with a price tag that more than doubles the Kiwanis Transit layout. Planners expect the service, to be operated by a contractor as is the case with GRT’s other BusPLUS routes, to cost $173,000 a year. The tax hit for this year under Kiwanis Transit was about $80,000.

It can be argued that’s far too much money to provide a service to far too few people. The tax hit isn’t warranted, especially as forecast under GRT. That’s true whether it’s an area-rate applied only to Elmira households, which increases the cost per capita, or the current hit spread out across the entire township, which isn’t conscionable given that the service is only of theoretical value to Elmira.

Of course, the current half-a-million-dollar price tag for the seldom-used route 21 is being borne by every household in the township despite serving only a limited number of people in the corridor between St. Jacobs and Elmira.

If the region is unable to do the right thing, it’s incumbent on township council to do the cost-benefit analysis, looking at the high costs for the route versus the very few riders.

Though purportedly a trial run, once introduced, it was very unlikely to be discontinued despite the math not making sense. And once it’s taken over by the region, the math is going to become much worse, though that would be ignored as is almost always the case with bureaucracies.

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