Terrain trumps Transit's attempt to tame travel troubles
By Timothy Schafer, The Nelson Daily
Nelson’s geography and terrain are its own worst enemy and have caused the current cost overruns and inefficiencies within its transit system, say two representatives from the provincial BC Transit department.
The regional manager of BC Transit, Kevin Schubert, and the company’s president and CEO, Manuel Achadinha, both told a stone-faced City council Monday night at their committee of the whole meeting the city’s transit needs were a tougher puzzle to solve than in any other BC centre.
Although the city needed the larger 40-foot, 40-passenger Nova buses the city currently has during its peak ridership times — for the school runs in the morning and the mid afternoon — they weren’t feasible and were too costly to operate the rest of the time, said Schubert.
But there wasn’t anything available otherwise that BC Transit could procure that would fill the bill for Nelson and its particular needs, he added.
He said BC Transit was experimenting with different types of smaller vehicles, but right now there wasn’t anything made in North America that would solve Nelson’s problems.
Achadinha noted the bus market was very restrictive in devising an appropriate bus for the steep, narrow streets of Nelson, as well as a small enough vehicle to accommodate the low ridership during non-peak times.
However, BC Transit is looking at “offshore markets” to deliver the sort of bus the city needed, Achadinha explained, possibly a 23-foot-long bus that holds about 23 people.
BC Transit has 15 “experimental” buses on order from Asia that are going to be investigated as possible solutions for centres like Nelson that don’t need the larger buses and have difficult terrain.
There is a possibility of bringing some of those new buses to Nelson on a trial run this year, Achadinha said. The smaller buses are 33 per cent more efficient than the larger buses.
“There is nothing here that is intended to be put down Nelson’s throat … We think this vehicle is a good answer to meet the demands of the peak and the off peak ridership in Nelson,” Achadinha said. “We do need vehicles that meet the need of the community.”
He suggested one of the short-term solutions could be to mesh the city schedule with the regional district service — which uses Handi-dart, 23-passenger buses.
Going exclusively to a smaller bus right now would not accommodate the demand in Nelson all on its own, said Schubert, but a solution could be integration with the regional district to alleviate the peak demand.
“Right now, based on the existing service, we couldn’t go to a smaller bus without sacrificing some of those people and leaving them on the sidewalk during peak times,” Schubert said.
Backtracking on the cost of the buses
However, the cost of the new Nova buses was one the City should have been cognizant of early on in the process of replacing the City’s 20-year-old Orion fleet, said Schubert.
They were delivered the budget for the new buses last March, and the chief financial officer at the time, Linda Tynan, accepted the proposal.
“It shouldn’t have come as a surprise,” said Schubert. “We tried to communicate (those higher costs) early on but we heard nothing back.”
Mayor John Dooley, who has been vocal on the rising costs of the new fleet and had garnered provincial support from other BC mayors in his denouncement of BC Transit’s delivery of the fleet, backtracked on his earlier comments.
“I feel some disappointment and embarrassment that this wasn’t made known to me that it was coming down the pike. Someone didn’t tell me so I feel very embarassed (now),” said Mayor Dooley.
The old buses carried a $6,700 per month debt service cost, whereas the new Nova fleet is tagged at $17,000 per month. The difference in price is in the maintenance costs, said Schubert, with $48,000 less being spent per year than with the Orion buses.
The newer fleet vehicle has a higher debt but the old fleet has a higher maintenance cost, said Achadinha.
“But from a council point of view you have every right to push on us and demand efficiency in the system,” Achadinha said.
The goal for the West Kootenay Concept Plan transit review is 18 months to implementation, said Schubert. Right now the short-term efficiency would be cuts to the routes during the off-peak times — ones that would not impact overall ridership.
Righting the perceived wrong
The City had $120,000 in operating losses with their six transit buses last year.
People weren’t riding the buses in non-peak times, and the new buses the City received in 2010 cost more to service than was anticipated. Transit costs were up 47 per cent, said City manager Kevin Cormack.
Debt servicing of the new buses, low ridership in some periods and increased fuel consumption meant there were a lot of additional costs to deliver transit.
In a letter to City council, Schubert said he ensured close to $40,000 of additional costs incurred by the City was accurately represented in the annual operating agreement for additional cost sharing.
He also had included Radio Avenue in the scheduling in the ridership guide on short notice — a request from Mayor John Dooley. Schubert also acknowledged Nelson’s part in the West Kootenay implementation plan be reported in advance of the promised September date.
“This review will be available well in advance of the May 30 date requested by council,” said Schubert.
Cormack confirmed a BC Transit planner will be coming in April to conduct a review of the service and make recommendations. The final report, in conjunction with City staff, will be released in May.
At the Feb. 28 special council meeting, council passed a motion requesting staff consult with BC Transit and provide a report by May 31 on the options available to reduce the cost of delivering transit services in the city.
Follow the money
The City’s share of transit costs are $128,000 higher than was budgeted in 2010.
Council targeted $100,000 from parking meter revenue to cover the majority of the shortfall.
There was also a 25 cent per ride increase to fares for all customers to help offset the rising transit costs — a move expected to generate $14,000 in 2011.
The City shares the cost of delivering a transit service with BC Transit, and takes some direction from them on routes and buses as well.
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