Cities grapple with costs of providing public transit

Two Newfoundland cities are pondering future options for their bus systems, balancing increasing costs with the benefits of providing the service.

In Corner Brook, officials are searching for ways to make transit more affordable.

A pilot project in the west coast city has extended service for the past year, putting buses on the roads later in the evening and on Saturdays.

But a review of the extended-service pilot project has uncovered the fact that taxpayers are paying a lot to keep the buses on the roads.

The number of riders in Corner Brook is up — but so are the costs.

“The evaluation itself showed that an overall increase was definitely seen in the ridership,” Coun. Donna Francis said.

“However, when you drill down into the times that people rode the bus, the number of riders, those sorts of things, at the end of the day, it did end up costing the city of Corner Brook more money.”

Corner Brook puts up more than $420,000 for transit, in a normal year.

The pilot project saw council pitch in another $140,000.

The transit study shows that ridership grew by 12,000.

In the evening hours, the price of placing people in bus seats was expensive.

"Do people, the residents of the city of Corner Brook, want us to subsidize a bus system at a cost of $19 per rider — you know, I don’t think so,” Francis said.

“If we can get it down to around $6, we’re talking about a different scenario altogether.”

Francis says council is open to ideas to keep the wheels rolling without breaking the bank.

The city ultimately decided to extend the pilot project another month.

That sets Oct. 31 as the new date to decide happens to the bus system.

Meanwhile, back on the east coast, ridership has steadily declined at Metrobus since peaking in the mid-1980s.

In 2007, the transit authority’s five-year plan predicted a rise in ridership from 3.3 million to 3.8 million.

But the opposite happened. The number of riders dipped close to three million in 2009.

However, Metrobus general manager Judy Powell says the numbers are beginning to rebound.

“In 2012, we are seeing very positive numbers,” Powell said.

In fact, this year is shaping up to be the best for the St. John’s transit authority since 2008, she notes.

Five years ago, Metrobus was receiving a $6.4-million subsidy from the city. That number was predicted to drop.

Instead, this year, the subsidy is $10.5 million. Officials are citing fuel, wages and growing equipment costs as part of the reason for the increase.

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