The wheels on the bus are beginning to turn again to a modernized transit system.
This time around public engagement and a phased approach would be taken as the system is considered by the City of Whitehorse.
At Whitehorse city council’s Dec. 5 meeting, transit manager Jason Bradshaw brought forward a recommendation that council give staff the go-ahead to work out the details on a concept for the transit system that’s been developed. That work would include testing out route times for the potential routes and developing schedules before moving onto public engagement.
The conceptual plans would eventually see eight routes in place compared to seven offered now (though the Whistle Bend – Riverdale North route operates on weekends only) with a 35 per cent increase in service hours.
While most transit stops, 95 per cent of them, would remain, there are six with low ridership that Bradshaw said may be removed in the interest of the system’s effectiveness.
Downtown would remain the main transit hub for transfers, with the Canada Games Centre serving as a secondary hub to provide more options for transit users. While current service levels would stay in place for the most part, some routes that currently go through Marwell would be rerouted to avoid congestion in that area. The changes also propose increased service to Whitehorse General Hospital, schools (including Porter Creek Secondary School potentially seeing service up to four times per hour) and a number of retail locations.
If the plans were to proceed, it’s anticipated the first phase of the system serving the north part of town, in Porter Creek and Whistle Bend, would begin running in the summer of 2023, eventually increasing to seven routes. A second phase in the south part of town (Copper Ridge and Riverdale) would begin about a year later in 2024 and would add another route. The eight route system would cover the neighbourhoods of Crestview, Porter Creek, Raven’s Ridge, Kopper King, Range Point, Marwell, Downtown, Riverdale North, Riverdale South, Whistle Bend, Takhini, Ingram, Granger, Copper Ridge, Lobird, McIntyre, and Hillcrest. Some neighbourhoods are covered through a number of routes.
The proposal follows a decision by council in June not to move forward with planned changes to the system that would have come into effect July 1.
Those changes were from a direction by council for a modernized transit route to be developed with little to no increases in the cost of running the system. The resulting schedule would have seen increases in service to some areas, with decreased service to others or, in the cases of the Lobird and Ravens Ridge neighbourhoods, a move to a home-to-hub service where residents would be provided with a ride on request to the nearest transit hub rather than having buses run through the neighbourhoods.
The changes proposed for July drew what Bradshaw described in his Dec. 7 report as “a greater than expected negative response”, leading council to delay the implementation and direct staff to consider the responses and come up with alternatives. More than 300 people attached their name to a petition at that time calling for the city to cancel the plans and get more input from residents.
“The review of public feedback revealed transit users recognized the importance of having an efficient transit system as a means to mitigate climate change,” Bradshaw said. “Riders value route directness from their surrounding neighbourhoods to Downtown and the existing system generally works well to support their daily commutes.”
The changes will come at a cost with Bradshaw highlighting estimated increased costs at $240,000 in the first year; $695,000 in the second year and $915,000 in the final year of implementation. That compares with the previous plan which would have cost $192,000 in the first year, $352,000 in the second year and $358,000 in the final year, resulting in an anticipated cost-neutral approach as the changes would be incorporated into the current costs and revenues of the transit system.
The timing of the estimated costs coming forward raised concerns for Coun. Dan Boyd, who pointed out the city’s operating budget for 2023 and provisional operating budgets beyond that have not yet come forward and aren’t anticipated until after the new year. Moving forward with the changes now would basically commit the city to funding the new system before the operating budget has been put in place, he said. He wondered about how much growth in the city, in places like Whistle Bend, would contribute to funding the new system and whether a tax increase might be needed as well.
City manager Jeff O’Farrell pointed out council is not being asked to consider the finances at this point, but rather whether it wants administration to figure out the details — building the routes and schedules to engage with the community — for the concept proposed.
“It is not a financial decision at this point,” he said.
Boyd countered if the city moves forward with developing the routes and schedules, it could be difficult to back out of the plans if the cost is too high.
“I don’t think we should be consulting on something and trying something only to say we can’t afford to do it,” he said. “So I’m reluctant to put this too far out until we answer the financial questions.”
Others; however, pointed out more concrete financial impacts will only be known once city staff work out more precise details on the routes and schedules.
“There’s a comprehensive analysis, financial analysis, that has to be done anyway, that connects to our own budget,” Coun. Kirk Cameron said. “I think that’s separate from what’s being asked of us to move forward and allow administration to carry on in a direction that, to be quite frank, seems to make sense to me.”
Mayor Laura Cabott said the potential for increased costs came as no surprise, given that council sent back the previous proposal to look for alternatives.
“I think we’ve asked administration to come up with something that is more palatable,” she said. “And something that addresses the concerns that were raised by the public, but there’s no question there’s going to be more cost and we’re going to just have to deal with that when we go through the operating budget.”
Speaking to the estimates provided, Bradshaw also pointed out that potential revenues were not factored into the cost estimates.
“Revenue would offset some of this,” he said.
Bradshaw also pointed to studies that show for every dollar spent on urban transit another $4 goes into the economy, describing putting money into the transit system as investments in both the local economy and in addressing climate change given the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions should residents opt for the bus rather than taking their own vehicles.
Answering other questions by council members Bradshaw noted there are no plans to reduce Riverdale routes, that the Ravens Ridge route currently sees about three to four rides per month and that maintaining trail access between the Valley View neighbourhood and the Canada Games Centre bus stop could be looked at in the next stage of the plan.
Council will vote on whether to have administration move forward with the proposal at its Dec. 12 meeting.
Contact Stephanie Waddell at email@example.com