Red Deer County council has agreed to test drive a two-year pilot project to extend bus service from Red Deer to Penhold and Innisfail.
Bus service is already running from Red Deer to Gasoline Alley and Springbrook. The new service would send buses down Highway 2A to link Penhold and Innisfail with Red Deer Transit at Bower Place mall.
The province announced a $700,000 grant in July to cover the costs of the project, which was endorsed by Penhold and Innisfail councils. Part of the project will involve gathering ridership numbers and other information to determine the ongoing viability of the service.
“I really believe this is an important project for our communities,” said Mayor Jim Wood, of the pilot project proposal endorsed by council Tuesday.
With Greyhound’s cancellation of local bus routes, and the loss of train service many years ago, rural people who don’t drive have fewer transportation options than ever, he said.
If the pilot project shows the service is not viable, the county can drop out.
“If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work,” he said. “Without trying, we’ll never know.
“I can’t see us going wrong on this project.”
Wood said the economic benefits of public transit systems — which rarely pay for themselves — are often indirect. He points to Gasoline Alley, where some businesses struggled because employees had trouble getting to work.
Regular bus service has largely fixed that problem and businesses have thrived, he said.
Coun. Christine Moore said a 2017 county needs assessment highlighted transportation as an issue for rural residents.
“The reality is not everybody drives,” said Moore. “We are servicing people the way they told us they want to be serviced.”
Improving transportation is important to economic development, she added.
Also in favour was Coun. Jean Bota.
“I like that it is a pilot project and it allows us to gather the data to see if this is something feasible going forward,” said Bota.
One councillor, Richard Lorenz, voted against the project.
Lorenz said he was not sure the ridership numbers for the Springbrook and Gasoline Alley service were where they should be, and he had doubts about the cost effectiveness of an extended route.
He was concerned that the county could end up subsidizing the service after the pilot project or face resident unhappiness if the project is discontinued.
“Then, we look like the bad guys because we decided to stop the service,” he said.
The bus service could also lure customers away from businesses in smaller communities to Red Deer competitors, he said.
In a separate motion, council voted in favour of applying for an unspecified Alberta Community Transit Fund grant. If approved, money would go toward the purchase of community shuttle buses.
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