Local transit plan needs more funding

Plan outlines transit service needs in Mission over 25 years

A plan outlining Mission and Abbotsford’s transit needs over the next 25 years may be doomed from the start due to a lack of funding.

“I hate to say this, but I don’t want to see this report sitting on a shelf collecting dust, which I have a feeling just might happen with this report, because we don’t have the funding. We have a gap there,” said  Mission Councillor Tony Luck.

The district is looking for ways to keep transit costs in line as the district ponders what can be done to increase ridership.

Barclay Pitkethly, Mission’s deputy director of development services, presented the Transit Future Plan to council Monday. The report estimates the Mission and Abbotsford will grow by 50 per cent over the next 25 years, adding another 85,000 people to the region.

The plan is to increase ridership by four times its current level of 2.3 million. To do so, service hours in the region need to increase to 408,700 hours per year, up more than three times the current level.

In 2012, Mission’s transit budget was $2.3 million. A total of $1.4 million of that is allocated for conventional bus service, while $621,000 was paid to the West Coast Express. Other costs include about $161,000 for handy dart service and another $140,000 for administrative and maintenance costs. Last year Mission collected $668,000 in ridership revenue, or about 27 per cent of the overall transit budget for Mission and Abbotsford.

Pitkethly said before any future expansion can be considered, the district’s operation and maintenance centre will need to be expanded.

He added they are also looking into the transit’s current exchange facility as it relates to the West Coast Express, and noted a new site is being considered through the downtown revitalization project.

Pitkethly said the idea is to improve the efficiency of current route schedules so transit can add to more popular routes and perhaps decrease the frequency of pick-ups on under used routes.

The plan calls on the district to add additional trips to coincide with the arrival and departure times of the West Coast Express, and to revamp current transit routes to a grid network.

As for paying any expansions, Pitkethly said the report suggests five ways to help generate the revenue. Up for discussion is a possible gas tax or a community pass, where household owners would have a fee attached to their property tax bill and receive an annual pass at a fraction of the cost; a parking tax; vehicle levy; or funding through capital reserves.

Council had little appetite to invest money in the current transit system until it can increase efficiency.

Coun. Larry Nundal said he’s already concerned with the subsidies handed out to the transit system. As it stands, only 27 per cent of the region’s transit budget is covered by fares. The remaining costs are covered by local and provincial taxes.

Coun. Dave Hensman is concerned the report doesn’t include more information on the West Coast Express. While he acknowledges the WCE is run outside the Fraser Valley Transit Authority, the two systems need to be considered equally before funding can be addressed.

“The problem is that Mission is paying the greatest portion of the West Coast Express, and our friends in Abbotsford aren’t paying the equal share of their users,” said Hensman.

Coun. Jeff Jewel, who sits on the transit board, said he questioned whether it’s even possible to meet transit’s projections of increasing ridership almost four times and covering the costs of expansion.

“To me it’s very iffy, but it’s the best anybody could come up with,” said Jewel, noting that the document is only a guideline and has no financial obligations attached.

Coun. Tony Luck agreed, saying funding will be the biggest obstacle to overcome where transit is concerned. He said he doesn’t believe they have the population numbers to be able to increase ridership to the projected numbers. Luck said the challenge is going to be whether they can fund both local transit and the West Coast Express while meeting the needs of the taxpayers who are funding the two options.