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The numbers have to support extending transit to Breslau

The region is proposing a pilot project to extend transit services into Breslau. It’s a safe bet the number of riders means the idea should just be killed right now. But it’s an even safer bet that taxpayers’ money will be spent rolling out some kind of service to the village, and a good bet that there will be no valid metrics for determining if the project should be made a full-time offering.

Woolwich residents have seen this movie before.

Rolled out as a pilot project a decade ago, bus service to St. Jacobs and Elmira eventually became a permanent route despite low ridership and falling fare-box recovery rates – even a low target of making back 25 per cent of the costs through fares paid by riders dropped to 20 per cent and then lower still. Both ridership and revenues nosedived this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the bus rolls on.

The most-used stretch of Grand River Transit’s route 21 is the few minutes between Waterloo and St. Jacobs, which is a draw for visitors. There are also some people using the bus to reach their places of work in the village and in Elmira. But the numbers are miniscule in comparison to the township’s population, all of whom are on the hook for the bulk of the $600,000 annual price tag even though many can’t even make use of the service.

Breslau has seen a large increase in the number of residents thanks to a building boom there. But that growth has largely involved residential development, particularly single-family homes. Nobody moves to Breslau planning to use public transit. That’s not going to change, especially as commercial, industrial and service developments aren’t a big part of the equation there.

To its credit, the region is looking at some kind of on-demand system that would avoid the traditional large bus rolling through a route in the village, connecting it to Kitchener and the wider GRT system. Empty buses already roll through much of the existing network of routes, including the Elmira link. But the details of this new format are scarce, most notably the costs.

In setting up a pilot project, regional council has to set up useful targets that must be met within the trial period, which shouldn’t exceed one year: regular use by at least 10 to 20 per cent of the population and fare recovery of at least 50 per cent would be minimum targets to even begin thinking about expanding into Breslau. Those same goals should also be applied to existing routes, with an eye towards sizing the transit system to serve only its basic role of providing transportation to those without alternatives – the region has failed repeatedly at attracting voluntary riders.

There are few arguments against public transit. But there is much to discuss about the costs, specifically the cost-benefit analysis.

If Breslau ridership is similar to the Elmira route, very few people will use the service. That may be beneficial to those individuals, but does it warrant the expense? That not only applies to the proposed expansion, but to keeping the service in Woolwich altogether. There appears to be no appetite for cancelling the existing service despite the poor numbers, but the township should tread lightly in looking to spend yet more money in Breslau, where ridership numbers are likely to be lower still.

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 making a decision on Breslau – and going 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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