Rural bus fees possible for Chinook’s Edge School Division

Chinook’s Edge School Division may start charging an annual fee for rural bus riders to deal with transportation funding shortfalls.

Chinook’s Edge School Division may start charging an annual fee for rural bus riders to deal with transportation funding shortfalls.

Over 4,000 students ride the bus across the expansive division that includes Olds, Innisfail and Sylvan Lake. Up to now, most do so for free.

But, facing another year without a provincial subsidy that would have given the division approximately $500,000 in transportation funds to play with, the division’s board is considering implementing a fee structure for the 2015-16 school year.

The division has exhausted its transportation reserves over the last few years, and, while it has not significantly reduced service or lengthened ride times, it intends to forgo upgrading its fleet unless the province reinstates its fuel price contingency program that had provided $22 million annually to school divisions before being discontinued last spring.

Typically, the division replaces four to six buses per year from its fleet of about 100, spending around $90,000 for each new vehicle. Associate superintendent Allan Tarnoczi said the division expects buses to be operational for 10 to 15 years before they have to be replaced.

Tarnoczi said the jurisdiction’s buses are in reasonably good shape now, but that the situation is not sustainable.

“It’s like a family car. Your car might be in good shape today, but if you’re not saving for the day when your car gets old and you need to replace it, you’re going to be hit with a huge bill when you finally do have to replace it. The same is true of our buses,” he said.

To pay for capital upgrades, the board will first lobby the government to reinstate the fuel subsidy, which gave boards additional funding whenever diesel prices were above 60 cents/litre (they currently sit at about $1.30/litre). Failing that, it would look to institute a ridership fee.

A 2007 survey of Alberta divisions found that only three of 25 rural jurisdictions charged fees to riders. But in recent years, more have been implemented. In the division immediately south of Chinook’s Edge, bus riders are charged $165 annually, with the maximum charge per family set at $330.

The average cost to run each route in Chinook’s Edge for a year is $52,000. The division cut about $400,000 from its 2013-14 transportation budget as fuel costs rose.

Some routes were amalgamated and other belt-tightening was done. The board has made it clear, though, that it does want to take funds out of the classroom to pay for student transportation.

It has, however, opted to discontinue shuttle services that have run between Penhold, Innisfail and Bowden to accommodate parents who have wanted their children to attend particular schools despite living outside of the standard attendance boundary for those schools. The buses will run during the 2014-15 school year to allow families to make alternate arrangements.

mfish@bprda.wpengine.com

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