Public transit opportunities being explored for rural southeast

Igniting connections is the theme of a new initiative recently created which will explore the feasibility of a public transit system that services the entire rural southeast.

The initiative began this fall as a collaboration between the RM of Piney and Eco-West Canada, a not-for-profit Winnipeg-based organization whose mandate is to promote sustainable economic development in rural communities through green economy infrastructure.

“Public transportation isn’t only for people living in cities,” says Melanie Parent, coordinator for the Piney Community Resource Council. “It’s a service deserving of all Manitobans, both rural and urban. Improving public transit is about giving residents of southeast Manitoba the freedom of equal access to social, health, and economic opportunities that enhance our quality of life.”

To launch the new program, the partners invited leaders from 17 municipalities and First Nation communities to participate in a round table session in Steinbach on September 22. The RM of Ritchot was among the 13 municipalities and communities represented at the meeting.

The Southeast Regional Transportation Initiative (SRTI) arose from this meeting and is led by the key originating partners, along with stakeholders and experts including TONS (Transportation Options Network for Seniors), the University of Manitoba, as well as a collection of municipal and First Nation leaders and local businesses.

“We believe quite strongly that transit and mobility are fundamental to the development of resilient and sustainable rural communities,” says Dany Robidoux, executive director of Eco-West. “However, we also understand how the barriers of place-based differences are a major challenge to overcome for rural communities wanting to transition to greener modes of transportation.”

Moving forward, the next step for the SRTI will include visits by project organizers to a variety of communities in the region east of the Red River and south of the TransCanada Highway.

Their goal will be to gain a more complete understanding of the people who make up the region, what their travel needs are, and what barriers stand in the way of them getting where they need to go.

Connie Gamble is the lead regional data collector for SRTI. She looks forward to fine-tuning the region’s transportation findings once all the research has been compiled. Still, there are some certainties her organization already possesses.

“Transportation is needed by seniors and others to address social isolation,” Gamble says. “It allows seniors to age in their own communities rather than having to move to obtain services not available in their community and especially being able to attend medical appointments.”

This is particularly true in municipalities such as Piney whose proximity to any major urban centre makes regular driving prohibitive.

But the need is not limited to seniors, Gamble adds. Regional transit systems could make rural communities more attractive to immigrants. It would provide more work commuting options to everyone and create a reduced reliance on fossil fuels and the need for a vehicle for every driver in a household.

It would provide more family support by creating affordable connectivity between urban and rural family members. Young people would have the option of living at home while attending university or working outside of their community.

For many rural communities, public transit could also go a long way to promoting tourism to their heritage sites.

But creating a public transit system goes beyond connectivity and access, Gamble says. It holds enormous potential for a greener future for all.

According to Gamble, transportation is responsible for Manitoba’s largest output of carbon pollution, since more than 90 percent of vehicles in the province rely on fossil fuels.

“Rural and northern households have greater obstacles to reducing transportation emissions than urban households due to longer travel distances that are part of daily life and less flexibility to shift to lower carbon transportation,” Gamble says. “Policy approaches need to account for these items.”

In terms of pulling off such a widespread initiative, Gamble says there’s strength in numbers. And since the region is comprised of so many smaller pocket communities that face the same transport challenges, she believes that working collaboratively as a whole may provide some affordable solutions.

“The RM of Piney has worked on a number of projects successfully with other partners, which brings more ideas, more attention, a stronger business case and more funding to [the table],” Gamble says.

The RM of Piney first began researching public transport options for their own residents in 2020. Sometime later, the CAO of Piney discovered that Eco-West was working on the same initiative, only on a broader scale. At this stage, they partnered for a stronger outcome.

Residents can watch their local news sources, RM websites, and social media sites for community outreach launches coming to their area soon.

Brenda Sawatzky, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Niverville Citizen