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Teasing out the transit tangle

Politicians like getting positive feedback about their decisions. But the feedback has been clearly negative in the case of council’s recent changes to transit services. And that’s a good thing. I’m glad people value transit.

Politicians like getting positive feedback about their decisions. But the feedback has been clearly negative in the case of council’s recent changes to transit services. And that’s a good thing. I’m glad people value transit.

Transit planning is very complex, I’ve learned. Perhaps we haven’t done well in communicating what’s happening, so please allow me to provide some context.

What the heck’s the problem?

Quite simply — the amount that city taxpayers contribute for transit jumped by $128,000 from 2010 to 2011 (equivalent to a two per cent tax increase, just for transit).

Transit is only one item in the city budget, and we looked hard at all departments during the 2011 budget process. Vacant positions in the police and fire departments were not filled and other areas, including administration, experienced cost-saving actions. We’re not just picking on transit.

Why have the costs gone up so much?

Our costs rose partly due to increases in fuel prices and in wages for our all-important, professional bus drivers. But the main factor is that our previous buses were paid off. Now that we have new buses, we have to service the debt for their purchase.

Why did the city buy these expensive buses?

Transit is a partnership between the city and BC Transit. Because our old buses were due for replacement, and because new (ex-Olympic) buses were available, we got them. Yes, they’re expensive. Just like any vehicle these days.

The new buses are more accessible, emit 30 per cent fewer emissions and have greater capacity (more standing room). We didn’t get the improved fuel efficiency we’d hoped for because, ironically, it takes a bit more fuel to fully combust and reduce emissions.

Why not get smaller buses?

We asked BC Transit that question and they told us they tried to source mid-sized buses all over North America. Unbelievably, none are being manufactured. So they’ve been working with a China-based manufacturer, and are currently piloting three of their mid-sized buses in the province. So, we anxiously await the availability of these buses.

To reduce emissions and slow climate change, aren’t buses important?

Absolutely. As a community, about 40 per cent of our energy use and 60 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation (mostly cars). Encouraging people to walk, bike, carpool and take the bus is very important.

Well, then, why cut service?

Council asked BC Transit to do two reviews, in consultation with our staff. One was to suggest short-term changes to reduce this year’s shortfall. Certain service cuts were proposed, and council approved some of them (e.g. no Sunday service or Waldorf School run).

I spoke strongly against the suggested service cut along West Richards. It’s wrong to take the bus off a route with a dense population of seniors, low-income folks and people with disabilities. That change is still being assessed, as is the Perrier Road run.

Council also asked for a service review, a longer-term look at how we can trim costs but also develop a more efficient and better-used system. The service review (available at proposes some radical changes to how bus routes are structured. These proposals will be the topic of public consultation, probably early in 2012 (because of this fall’s election).

In addition, a new strategy for regional bus service will be completed this fall, providing opportunities for greater efficiency in Nelson.

Why doesn’t council just try to get more people using the bus?

We absolutely want to increase ridership. That’s why we’re considering a long-term system restructure to make transit more efficient and desirable. For example, “choice riders” (like me) prefer more direct routes. When it takes three times as long to take the bus as to drive, my choice will usually default to my car. Sadly.

Increased rider revenue is great, but to sustainably manage costs, we need to reduce the size of our bus fleet. And the new structure, or even some of the short-term changes, could enable that.

So what do you have to say for yourself?

I’m unhappy with the Sunday service cut, and regret supporting it. I think it would be better to wait for the big change, based on the service review and public input. And the short-term budget shortfall? We just have to figure that out.

As a politician, I have to do a responsible balancing act, because taxpayers have their limits. But for me transit that is efficient and responsive is a very high priority service, for social, economic and environmental reasons.

The conversation continues.

Donna Macdonald is a Nelson city councillor. She shares this Wednesday space with her colleagues