Eganville -- While some residents of Renfrew County may remember taking the train to Ottawa and others remember hopping on the bus at the Golden Lake convenience store, those days are a distant memory, made all the more distant by Greyhound Canada’s announcement recently it was permanently ending its bus services across Canada in May.
Prior to service being halted during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Greyhound 747 stopped in Eganville, Golden Lake, Killaloe and Barry’s Bay, on its way from Pembroke to Peterborough. Renfrew County residents relied on it to connect to Ottawa or Peterborough and beyond.
However, now residents of most of these smaller communities have no options for public transit to get to nearby cities.
“If you want to get in from Pembroke to Ottawa in the morning and back out in the evening, you’re stuck. There's no way to do it, and that’s kind of silly,” said Terry Johnson, president of the citizen advocacy group, Transport Action Canada.
Even local inter-community bus options like the Leduc 500 bus from Arnprior to Ottawa have suspended service due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Seniors, students, the Mennonite community, and many others rely on inter-community buses and the closure of Greyhound led to North Algona Wilberforce Township (NAW) writing a letter to the provincial government, recently calling for an urgent solution.
While Premier Doug Ford acknowledged receipt of this letter, NAW CAO Andrew Sprunt indicated they are waiting for a more detailed response to the request.
One potential solution would be for Ontario Northland to expand its existing limited bus service in Renfrew County, namely along Highway 17, over to Highway 60.
Ontario Northland buses currently stop in Petawawa, Pembroke and Cobden, along the route to Ottawa. Starting July 4th the bus will run daily, passing through Pembroke at 9 p.m. and arriving at 11:20 p.m. at the Ottawa Via Rail station. However, this limited schedule may not meet the needs of seniors going to Ottawa for medical appointments, for example. According to Mr. Sprunt, the Mennonite community has been leading calls to find a solution, in the wake of Greyhound’s closure, not just for their community but for all residents.
“(The Mennonite community) is suggesting that the demographics have changed. Where people from the city are moving here,” he said. “Their interest is in community enhancement”.
The calls of the Mennonite community have been echoed by local councillors.
“And from our township and what council has discussed, it’s about that too… the demographics are going to change because of so many house sales in Renfrew County,” Mr. Sprunt said.
He said the lack of a regional bus service impacts not only current residents but also potential future residents.
“Some younger people are not interested in driver’s licenses,” he said. “To attract that younger generation that is thinking that way, you’ve got to have alternatives for transportation”.
Conversations are happening with Ontario Northland about a potential expansion of their current bus routes to serve North Algona Wilberforce Township and other area municipalities. Ontario Northland did not respond to the Leader’s request for an interview.
While motorcoach services like Greyhound play a unique role in getting people to and from other communities within Renfrew County, other solutions are being developed to address intra-community transportation.
The County of Renfrew is launching a rideshare pilot project that aims to provide a flexible on-demand transportation option to address the needs and challenges in Renfrew County.
Alastair Baird, Manager of Economic Development with the County of Renfrew, indicated next steps on the ride share service will be announced in the coming months.
“Our county-wide ride share system will be launched soon, in the coming months,” he said. “There will be a program to inform the residents and to promote it to the residents and engage the volunteer drivers that are needed”.
He hopes the flexible service will be sustainable in Renfrew County’s unique rural environment.
While these types of ride share services can help residents get to medical appointments or commute, Mr. Johnson of the citizen advocacy group Transport Action Canada, said rural Canada needs comprehensive mobility plans that take into consideration transportation, cargo and other needs such as mail delivery to stack services and increase financial sustainability.
He said the costs of not having reliable public transportation is high.
“People are relying on friends or volunteers for a ride and they’ve dropped out on them, creating missed health appointments,” Mr. Johnson said.
“Canada’s entire economy has been tipped off balance towards big cities and not sufficiently distributed… over the course of decades,” Mr. Johnson said.
In February 2021, the federal government announced it would be investing $5.9 billion in public transit over the next five years with $250 million, roughly four per cent of the fund, dedicated to a new “Rural Transit Solutions Fund”.
On June 28th, the Ontario government announced it would extend funding for another two years through the Community Transportation Grant Program to provide transportation in underserved communities.
Two communities in Eastern Ontario will benefit. Arnprior received an additional $118,606 and Petawawa an additional $173,595.
However, costs remain the key barrier when it comes to system-level transportation solutions in Renfrew County including discussions around revitalizing passenger rail.
“To bring rail back to Renfrew County would be cost prohibitive,” Mr. Sprunt said.
In January 2020, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation released a draft regional transportation plan for Southwestern Ontario. According to the provincial government, a plan will be forthcoming for Eastern Ontario.
The government will be consulting Ontarians as it develops the regional transportation plans, including First Nation communities.
The need for more frequent and accessible transportation services was a key theme of the final report of the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, published in June 2019.
The Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn provide transportation for community members to medical and specialist appointments.
But though different communities in Renfrew County have a patchwork of localized transportation solutions, Greyhound’s demise has created a void locally when it comes to inter-community transportation, leaving many residents stranded.
Christina Vietinghoff, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader