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Red Deer action bus service boosted

Demand is still beyond the capacity of Red Deer Transit Action Buses, but the gap is closing.

City transit manager Kevin Joll said more than 400 requests per month can’t be met for the specialized transit service for people with mobility issues who are unable to use regular transit buses.

However, a new bus that will be added to the fleet sometime this month will increase the maximum number of buses on the road during peak demand to 14.

“With the new bus coming in we should at least be able to cut (unmet requests) in half or a little bit more,” Joll said.

“Just like other transit systems in Canada, we do have unmet trips. There will always be unmet trips. But city council has made a decision for 2012 to add some service to try to improve those unmet trips.”

During the mid-year budget review, city council approved another bus for September 2013.

Joll said Action Buses, which can fit up to five wheelchairs or seven seated passengers, have seen a huge increase in demand.

“Over the last five years there’s been a 25 per cent increase in people requiring the service. It’s nothing we didn’t see coming back in 2004 when we did the transit and special transportation study.”

Joll said to meet the existing need, two additional buses would be needed immediately, keeping in mind Action Buses gain roughly 400 new customers per year so the service is always trying to hit “a moving target.”

Due to aging demographics, ridership is forecast to continue to increase, he said.

Among the growing number of seniors using the bus, more riders are also dialysis patients with mobility problems who need regular rides back and forth to Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre.

Senior Yvonne Johnson said she had to give up playing bridge on Thursday night and Friday afternoon over a year ago because the Action Bus is too busy transporting dialysis patients.

As of October, 34 dialysis patients were using the Action Bus. Treatments are typically required three times a week.

“(Dialysis patients) need to have their transportation. Maybe the (provincial) Department of Health should be helping,” said Johnson, who requires a wheelchair and has been using the Action Bus for 25 years.

She said there’s never been enough funding for Action Buses.

Arlene Hilman, 63, who has multiple sclerosis and also needs a wheelchair, agreed that the service is hugely important for dialysis patients.

But it’s also a service that should add fun and enjoyment to people’s lives, she said.

This year, the Action Bus refused to take Hilman, an avid gardener, to Parkland Nurseries, located a few kilometres outside Red Deer, where she would regularly shop spring to summer.

“I have a raised garden bed in the backyard. I love gardening. When you’re in a wheelchair, it’s so important for you to do some of these things,” Hilman said.

She said she offered to pay the Action Bus more to reach the nursery on Hwy 11, but was told the trip was no longer an option.

“It’s health to me. It would be so worth it.”

Joll said the system is run on a first-come/first-serve basis, but medical trips can take priority.

Statistics show 45 per cent of people use the Action Bus for social outings, followed by 17 per cent for medical trips, 13 per cent for education, 10 per cent for dialysis, six per cent for physical therapy, five per cent for shopping and four per cent for work.

About a month ago, Johnson said the Action Bus dropped her off but was unavailable to pick her up from a medical appointment. She had to wait an hour for one of the specialized vans from a local taxi service sometimes used as backup by the Action Bus.

Action Bus riders are encouraged to book a seat 15 days in advance because of the demand.

“Many times I have phoned to use the handicapped transportation and there is no transportation. It’s totally booked,” Johnson said.

Demand has also reduced flexibility to meet the needs of individuals, said Jean Stinson, president of Red Deer Action Group Society, which runs a subsidy transportation program for low-income residents that includes those who ride the Action Bus.

For example, changing a pickup time on the same day as the trip is impossible, she said.

“That can’t be done because everything is planned two weeks ahead of time,” Stinson said.

“I think that catering to the client is gone. A lot of people feel their needs are not being met.”

Red Deer Action Group ran the Action Bus for 30 years prior to the city taking over in 2007.

A 2004 Transit and Special Transportation Study recommended that special transportation be integrated into the city’s transit department.

Stinson said fewer people on Action Buses are without a wheelchair or walker so Red Deer Transit is doing a good job screening out people who could use city transit buses. But drawbacks remain, like limited service on holidays.

Stinson said providing better Action Bus service comes down to more funding.

Action Buses have a $1.6-million net budget for 2012, with a projected 80,000 trips for 2012, up from 77,000 in 2011.

On a typical weekday, about 274 trips are made from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., 90 trips on Saturday from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and 44 on Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Weekend and holiday schedules are based on demand and the budget.

Joll said the system has been running very efficiently with new software adopted in 2008 to co-ordinate trips.

Clients pay $3 for a one-way Action Bus trip anywhere in the city. The net cost of a one-way trip is actually $24 while the net cost of riding traditional transit is $2.

“Anytime we can get customers using the conventional transit, it is the way to go. We try to move as many people as we can to conventional transit and the ones who can’t use that service, that’s when we take them to the next service,” Joll said.

All regular transit buses in the city kneel lower to the curb and have a ramp that can be deployed so someone in a wheelchair can board. There are two locations where wheelchairs can be positioned on a bus.

Work on upgrading transit stops for easier access continues and snow removal has improved, he said.

The province does not provide operating funding specifically for transit for the disabled, but GreenTRIP Transit Incentives Program from the province and federal funding are available to help with the cost of purchasing buses.

Over the years, the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association has put forward resolutions for more government funding for transportation for the disabled.

“For the seniors and the disabled, we need more help. It truly is a big expense,” said Red Deer city Coun. Lynne Mulder.

Approving another bus at the mid-year budget review was better than waiting until budget discussions in January. But with the growth of ridership, the city is still playing catch-up, she said.

“I just want to get caught up so that when we look at it every year we can know that what we’re doing is going to make a difference.”

Progress has been made on increasing the number of people per Action Buses trip, but that isn’t always possible. People have a specific place to go at a specific time, Mulder said.



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