The Town of Hinton is officially taking back permanent responsibility for the accessible transportation services once known as the Freedom Express.
For the remainder of the year, the service will be offered with the current limited service levels. That service level will increase in 2022 as is to be determined through the 2022-2024 operational budget process. The services will remain status quo until council approves otherwise, confirmed acting CAO Laura Howarth during the Sept. 7 regular council meeting.
Council can adjust the Transportation Services budget through the 2022 budget process to resume the delivery of accessible transportation services as a Town service area and to a higher level than what is currently offered.
Depending on budget changes, the hours of service and staffing levels would be reassessed, stated administration’s report. Increasing the service level in 2022 would either require re-establishing the permanent $75,000 reduction in the FCSS budget approved by Council in 2020 or require a reduction in an alternate service area.
Administration spent months searching for an external party that would agree to take on the delivery of accessible transportation services in the Town of Hinton with no luck.
The Evergreens Foundation (EGF) was previously identified as an ideal partner for this service transfer because they are equipped with an accessible transportation bus, have licensed transportation drivers, share clientele, could offer a similar service delivery model, and is an established community agency.
The Town of Hinton entered into an agreement with EGF last August to provide an annual financial contribution for an Accessible Transportation Service for residents with mobility limitations and eliminate The Town-provided Freedom Express Transportation Service.
Due to an unanticipated application to the Alberta Labour Relations Board, this agreement was terminated in September 2020, stated administration. Since then, the Town made several attempts to work with EGF but was declined.
Temporary limited accessible transportation services were made available while the Town searched for another external party to partner with. The Freedom Express has been operating with a reduced budget and reduced hours since November 2020 and has been meeting the needs of the clients according to a survey completed in the spring.
Data from the survey showed that there was a significant decrease in ridership in the past year compared to the previous year. This decrease is a result of the reduced operating budget, reduced hours and availability, increased usage of alternative modes of transportation, continued COVID-19 impacts, inactive programs, and increased efficiency in scheduling, stated administration.
Prior to the reduction in service delivery scope, the Freedom Express service operated with an annual budget of $105,208 with service offered six days per week. Under the revised reduced scope model, the service operates with an annual budget of $25,000 and provides service for three partial days a week.
The reduction of approximately 26.5 service hours per week resulted in service operating on a budget of $80,208 less per year.
Freedom Express clients must have a short or long-term physical or cognitive impairment and must reside in Hinton or Yellowhead County. Registered eligible clients can call the Freedom Express phone line any time to book their appointments on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from 9 am to 2 pm. Clients are requested to provide 24 hours notice for booking.
Masha Scheele, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hinton Voice