Photo submitted People lineup to board a bus as part of the BOLT transit system between Lacombe and Red Deer.

Lacombe and Blackfalds consider future of regional transit system

Lacombe council raised concerns about ridership numbers for BOLT transit system

The future of a transit system serving Blackfalds and Lacombe is under review following a report showing ridership numbers have not increased as much as hoped.

This week, Lacombe and Blackfalds councils both discussed BOLT, a bus service begun in 2014 that connects Lacombe and Blackfalds to Red Deer’s transit system. Lacombe and Blackfalds share the cost and Red Deer operates the system.

A recent report on BOLT showed ridership had dropped to 19,751 last year from 20,149 in 2016. Only 23 per cent of the cost of the $270,000 service is recouped through fares, the rest is subsidized by Lacombe and Blackfalds.

Lacombe Mayor Grant Creasey said many in his community have concerns with the cost of the transit system.

“The simple fact of the matter is it is viewed by a good portion of our residents as a rather costly venture for an unfortunately very low uptake and which benefits very few.

“So, we’ve got some work to do.”

Creasey said he and others on council were “extremely disappointed” with ridership numbers.

“I think for even the (councillors) who are extremely pro-regional transit, I think it’s pretty hard to deny the fact there’s been no appreciable growth in its ridership numbers since its implementation.”

City council asked its staff to gather information on what options are available, such as finding ways to boost ridership, looking at more cost-effective ways to move passengers, or dropping out of the transit agreement with Blackfalds.

Blackfalds town council reviewed the same transit report at its Tuesday meeting. Council directed staff to look at undertaking a joint review of BOLT with its Lacombe counterparts.

Creasey said he would welcome an initiative of that kind.

“I think it would be nice to see where they stand to because it is a shared service. We’re more apt to make a decision in everybody’s interest if we have their input as well.”

Blackfalds chief administrative officer Myron Thompson said the town is firmly committed to the transit system and believes it may be time to have a more formal body — possibly along the lines of a commission — to oversee it.

Blackfalds council would also like to see ridership and revenue numbers improve, which were likely affected by the economic downturn but are getting better.

“It looks like things are improving,” he said.

Thompson said most municipal services are subsidized and the transit system is seen as something that will build over time.

There may be opportunities to expand the service, he said, offering Lacombe County’s nearby industrial areas as an example.

On the table for discussion if the two municipalities meet will be a Burman University proposal to revamp BOLT to better serve its students and boost ridership.

The Lacombe university and its students’ association have pitched the creation of a $200-per-year student pass to help cover BOLT transit costs.

Among the changes proposed in the three-year agreement that would begin in September is the elimination of Saturday service in return for an additional evening trip. It is also proposed a Sunday charter service be offered during the eight months of the university school year.

The university estimates its proposal would improve cost recovery to 29 per cent this year and 39 per cent in 2019.

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