For the 2013/2014 school year the Department of Education ran a trial program called the Student Transit Pilot Project which gave certain high school students the option to apply for free bus passes. This was a voluntary program, with the sole condition being that those high school kids who enrolled were no longer eligible to ride the school bus. Instead they had to take city transit to school or find some other way to arrive on time.
I am very interested to see the results of the pilot project, as it seems like a good idea. The partial combination of our school bus system and our city transit makes sense given the relative small size of our population. The operation of two full-length-bus systems in a town of 28,000 always seemed like a needless doubling up of service – especially since the math concerning city transit is always reported as grim news.
That our city transit program loses money year over year is not a secret. The 2013-2015 City of Whitehorse operating budget shows 2012 transit revenues of $1.4 million dollars with expenses during that time of $3.4 million, for a loss of approximately $2 million on the 2012 transit year. The draft operations budgets for 2013, 2014 and 2015 assume similar losses on municipal transit, with an expected loss in 2015 of $2.5 million.
Those losses are not a surprise given that we run a big-city type of bus service for a small-city type population.
That is not to say that we should abandon public transit because of losses; in fact, I am saying just the opposite. We need a mechanism by which people can get from Porter Creek and Granger to downtown to work. We need a public method of transportation for those with disabilities or are otherwise unable to drive. We just need to think of a way to provide that service in a way that makes sense for our small jurisdiction.
As a territory I think we sometimes get distracted by what other jurisdictions are doing, rather than looking at what will work for the Yukon. We see that B.C. has a residential tenancy department, so we create one here. We see that Alberta has a human rights commission, so we import that mechanism here.
For better or worse, we simply don’t have the populations of Alberta or B.C. that necessitates many of the same solutions and mechanisms. We only have 34,000 people spread across the entire territory. That is one-third of the amount of people who live in Red Deer alone. We have some of the same issues as those bigger jurisdictions, but nowhere near the same volume.
Busing is a good example of this maxim at work, as we have the same need to move people around town, but nowhere near the same amount of people to move.
That is why the Student Transit Pilot Project is a step in the right direction. It identifies that Whitehorse really has two public busing systems, one for kids and one for adults, with the adult bus service operating at a steep loss. When faced with such a duplication of services we should sit down as a community and think of ways to combine territorial and municipal efforts so as to harness efficiencies and save some money.
I think the Student Transit Pilot Project is on the right track in this regard. The first step is to remove all kids in Grade 10 and up from the school busing system and give them all bus passes, paid for by the Yukon government. This will, of course, only apply to kids who live within a certain distance from a bus stop, but the key is to make the switch mandatory.
This will fill up seats on city transit, bring much needed revenue into transit coffers, and allow the Yukon government to cut back on its own busing service. The high school kids also come out ahead, as they now have a way to get to after-school activities, work or downtown on the weekends. And if they miss the first bus, they can always catch the next one.
Of course, the above only works if the Yukon government can use the city system to reduce the cost of their school-busing system. If the Yukon government continues to run the same size buses after the switch, or sees no savings, then the double-system still exists, which defeats the purpose of putting kids on city buses in the first place.
In fact, if both systems remain entirely intact, and the Yukon government has to kick money into the city transit system along with bearing the full cost of the school busing system, the program will actually end up costing more, rather than less, money.
That being said, the pilot project is a good step to addressing the city transit issues with a made-in-Yukon approach, an approach we should be taking to more issues in the territory.
Graham Lang is a Whitehorse lawyer and long-time Yukoner.