Council drives transit plan without MTO
|By Mark Arike - Staff Writer | February 1, 2018
County council is sticking to its original plan for the establishment of a transportation system despite a plea to apply for provincial funding that may not be available again.
During a special meeting in December, council chose to allocate $50,000 in this year’s budget to hire a consultant to develop a detailed implementation plan for the launch of a rural transportation system in the county. At the time, planning director Charlsey White made councillors aware of a new Ministry of Transportation (MTO) grant program offering municipalities up to $500,000 over five years. It would require a five-year commitment from the municipality, which would start this year.
On Jan. 24, Sue Shikaze, transportation task force co-chair, and Tina Jackson, community transportation coordinator, asked council to reconsider applying for the MTO grant.
“Our community certainly is a fit for the goals of this program,” said Shikaze. “We rarely see these kinds of long-term grant opportunities for communities.”
She said it would fund the development of services, capital and non-capital costs, and marketing and promotion. The selected transportation model is a booked shared ride that would cost about $192,000 per year. It would operate five days a week. Shikaze and Jackson said ministry representatives told them the municipality doesn’t need to contribute matching funds, however it would add points to their application.
According to their presentation, the service may not be able to offer doorto-door service, but it would be more responsive than a fixed route. Those in outlying areas would need to get to a main route to be picked up. Riders would pay a fare.
“I don’t think you’ll be able to service the whole county with one [vehicle], but good luck if you can do it,” said Fearrey. At one point, some councillors expressed support for the ask.
“We should apply for the grant and see at the end of the first year where we land,” said Coun. Carol Moffatt. “It’s kind of hedging our bets, but it seems to be the thing to do.”
Coun. Brent Devolin, who sits on the task force, also thought it would be wise to apply. Then county CAO Mike Rutter reminded council that gas tax funding can be put toward the project.
“Choosing not to apply for the MTO funding does not necessarily mean there won’t be any grant opportunities available,” said Rutter. “As long as you have a transportation system that meets the criteria—and this would—the gas tax is automatic.” The provincial gas tax provides “stable and predictable transit funding” for municipalities, according to the MTO. They currently receive two cents per litre of revenues. This will increase 50 cents next year and go up to four cents in 2021-22.
According to White, it would cover up to 75 per cent of the cost of the model after the first year, or $144,000 annually, leaving a difference of $48,000. The MTO program offers up to $100,000 annually for five years, leaving a shortfall of $92,000 per year. The county would have to cover the difference. The future increase in the gas tax program “may change the formula again,providing the opportunity for even more funding,” said White.
“I think everyone recognizes this is a huge issue,” said Deputy Warden Liz Danielsen. “It’s a huge increase to our tax base. The gap between how much we might get [from the MTO] and what it costs, is a huge struggle for me.” Moffatt was also concerned about money, citing fears of being “stuck on an unstainable path with tax dollars.”
In the end, council agreed the most prudent approach would be to get an implementation plan and go from there. In an interview with The Highlander, Shikaze said she was pleased to hear that council remains committed to the project.
“In the end, it’s really positive they’re willing to budget for spending on a plan,” she said. “We certainly see a much greater commitment from the county— it’s the first time there’s money being put it into it.”
Once a system launches, Shikaze added it will be a work in progress. “You need to spend time building and tweaking it. It’s important they [council] recognize it’s going to take a few years to fully take off,” she said.
MARK ARIKE is a reporter for The Highlander.