The lack of rural transit in the province has been a long-standing issue, but now the government is taking action
The tide is changing for rural transportation in Alberta. More communities are set to offer new or improved regional transit systems, a service badly needed for people requiring medical care or others who don’t drive.
The province is expected to announce a program in the next few months that will help fund municipalities to either bring in rural transit or enhance current systems. Municipalities must be collaborating with one another to be considered.
While Transportation Minister Brian Mason is tight-lipped about what’s coming, he said the program would be a two-year pilot project for suitable candidates. If all goes well, it could become permanent.
“We’re hoping to work with municipalities in certain areas to make connections for people in rural and smaller communities,” Mason said in an interview.
“What we’re trying to do is provide a service to connect those people who don’t necessarily have access to their own vehicle to help them get to a medical appointment, do the shopping they need, or to visit family and friends.”
The lack of rural transit in the province has been a long-standing issue with advocates and rural citizens. They argue that they, like their urban neighbours, have a right to receive accessible health care and other services, even if they are long distances away.
Jane Ross, a rural transit advocate who lives near Camrose, has been pushing local and provincial governments to get on board with rural transit since 2004.
“Early on, we never thought transit systems like this were going to happen. Government just was never on side,” said Ross, president of the Association for Life-Wide Living of Alberta. “But I think they get it now. They are much more accessible to the idea than they were.”
But it’s not only the provincial government that’s listening. Over time, Ross and other advocates have also convinced local governments to take transit seriously.
In Camrose, the city launched a community bus service last year. As well, organizers with the regional bus in Bashaw, Alta., are looking to expand service so it can once again go to nearby towns. Currently, it just goes around Bashaw once a week or to Camrose once a month.
As well, Grande Prairie has launched a study with its rural neighbours to see if they can develop a transit system and, down south, the bus in Rocky View County has managed to expand service over time.
But while progress has been made, there are still many people in rural Alberta without accessible transit.
Advocates say the biggest hurdle is finances. Buses are expensive to operate and maintain and ridership can be low due to the fact that fewer people live in rural Alberta.
But it can be made to work, supporters say.
Paul Siller, executive director with the Rocky View Regional Handibus Society, knows what it’s like to run a successful operation on a tight budget.
He said the key is collaboration, where all municipalities work together and pay their fair share. This ensures costs for passengers remain low and that the system can stay viable.
“Our secret is we don’t have formal agreements in place but we act like we do,” Siller said. “We faked it until we made it and, over time, with the municipalities we worked with, most of them have really realized how beneficial this is.”
As well, he added that a robust transit system saves dollars for people and the provincial government.
“Right now, every dollar spent on our transit system saves rural Albertans from moving to the big city and taking up even more supports,” he said. “Every dollar that’s spent on our transportation service saves $7 per capita in health care, another $3.50 in seniors’ care and, with the school board program we do, another $3 in child and family services.”
Mason said people can expect more details on the provincial program by the end of April.