Disabled users of the transit system here in St John’s will see improvements in the next two years thanks to federal infrastructure funding, but it is not clear whether this new money will unlock radical improvements in the longer term.
In March, 18 “new” wheelchair accessible buses (replacing existing worn-out GoBus buses) and 29 wheelchair-accessible bus shelters were announced alongside other improvements, drawing on matched funding from the federal Public Transit Infrastructure Fund.
At present, about half of bus ridership is on wheelchair-accessible buses – and a report written by Dillon Consulting in 2011 identifies accessibility as a growing issue for the transit system as our population ages. Almost a third of the NE Avalon region’s population will be 60 or older by 2026 and 31% of 65-74 year olds are disabled.
According to Ron Ellsworth, the Deputy Mayor and a member of Metrobus’ governing Commission says the GoBus service which picks up the disabled from their doorstep has almost doubled the number of rides it provided since 2008.
However, according to Judy Powell, Metrobus’ general manager, improvements to the proportion of Metrobus’ regular routes that support disabled riders depends on replacing buses with new accessible ones as they wear out, and the last of the old are not expected to be replaced for 10 more years.
One of the cornerstones of the 2015 Federal election campaign was an increase in infrastructure spending, and the largest part of this promised investment – almost a third – will go to public transit.
The fund matches the provinces’ spending on new transit infrastructure dollar for dollar – Newfoundland’s share of this fund up to the end of 2018 is nearly $5m, and it will largely go to St. John’s. A second phase of funding is also planned for more ambitious longer-term projects from 2019.
According to Ellsworth, Metrobus is about to start work on a 3 to 5 year strategic plan. As Derek Coffey, the Deputy city manager for Finance said, “we’d be almost fools to pass up fifty cent dollars” (federally-matched funding) but it is not clear yet where any future investment might go.
The Dillon Report provides some suggestions for where increased resources might go. It pointed out that bus services that come less frequently than every half-hour, “are considered very inconvenient for passengers in most urban settings” and suggested, “Metrobus should develop a strategy to improve frequencies to 30 minutes for weekday peak periods and during the midday off-peak on all routes.”
At present, however, even the busiest bus routes generally run every hour in the evenings and weekends and of Metrobus’ 22 routes, nine never run any more frequently. Ellsworth responded that from time to time bus frequencies are increased on individual routes to see whether the number of passengers also increases.
The report noted as of 2011 that St John’s lacked transit services connecting St. John’s to Mount Pearl, Paradise, and Conception Bay South. A separate 2009 study pointed out that more than a third of commuters to downtown come from outside St John’s. To date the only outside links from Metrobus are two hourly bus routes to Mount Pearl and a single bus route running four times a day on weekdays to Paradise.
Ellsworth talked of the need to better connect St. John’s to the surrounding regions as one of his priorities, but noted that this needed to be negotiated with the other communities who would be providing funding. It was suggested that park and ride schemes be instituted; this is now in place in Paradise but nothing more so far.
The underlying difficulty in getting a transit system that would be significantly more convenient is in paying for it in the longer term. Federal infrastructure money might be found to pay for additional buses for example, but the buses would need to be staffed and maintained. According to Ellsworth users are already only paying around a third of the cost of their journeys, while in other similar areas they pay closer to half.
Judging from the council’s Strategic Plan 2015-18, the political will for significant costly transit upgrades appears to be lacking. None of the 36 goals set in the plan reference public transit. Councillor Dave Lane, who has attempted to raise the importance of transit in the council’s deliberations described its absence from the strategic plan as “shocking.”
“Metrobus is a hard-working organization but it requires a strategic direction from the council for it to be able to respond to the public needs.”
The chair of the commission is Councillor Wally Collins and alongside Ellsworth and Bruce Tilley is the third councillor on the commission if you would like to contribute your views as they craft their strategic plan. Like Lane, Councillor Sheilagh O’Leary notes that this is not an area that is debated much in council.
Main Federally Co-funded Transit Improvements for 2017/18
- The 18 GoBus disabled-accessible buses which are worn out are to be replaced with new (similar) Goshen Impulse buses.
- 29 new wheelchair-accessible bus shelters will be added on the disabled-accessible routes 1,2,3,5, 14 and 23.
- All concrete shelter pads on remaining routes will be replaced to allow for more accessible shelters later.
- Sidewalks to be built where they were lacking to aid accessibility on sections of Empire Avenue, Ennis Avenue, O’Leary Avenue, Peet Street, Westerland Road and Waterford Bridge Road.
- A Transit Priority System will be piloted to give buses priority at selected intersections.
- All buses will have video surveillance added.
- Digital signs will be added to two bus shelters for customer information and advertising.