Q&A with Kelly Hudson, Chief Administrative Officer of the Municipal District of Spirit River No. 133

Give us a little bit of background about the Rural Transportation Pilot Project.
The MD is part of a joint municipal FCSS program with the Village of Rycroft and the Town of Spirit River. Originally, the MD purchased a used 1994 14-passenger van with wheelchair lift and then replaced that with a used 2001 paratransit bus – both purchased from Grande Spirit Foundation towards the end of their life cycles. Each of these units was operated and managed by FCSS for residents requiring the service. They were used primarily for those that needed the wheelchair lift to access health appointments, trips to Grande Prairie monthly and recreational opportunities. These units are quite costly to keep maintained and certified for passenger transportation and each had reached the end of their life cycle.

We were at a point where we were not able to provide the service when Alberta Transportation was investigating alternative transportation models to better service rural Alberta. They introduced a pilot program and accepted proposals, and the MD was successful in obtaining $200,000 in grant funding to offer a transportation pilot program for two years. The MD then decided to purchase a new paratransit bus and offer the transport service.

With the pullout of the Greyhound bus service there is a sector in our communities that are not able to find travel into the larger centers like Grande Prairie when they needed to meet health appointments as well as social or recreational opportunities.

The goal of the MD was to determine if a program where it was pre-determined that the bus would leave and return to our community on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of each week was available with no chance of being cancelled then people could schedule their appointments accordingly. You could book dental and eye care appointments months in advance and know you have a ride to get to it. If you wanted to travel in on a Thursday and stay with friends and family for the weekend you could book your return trip on Tuesday, for example, or go in on Tuesday go to a movie with friends and come home the next afternoon. If we do not give all sectors the opportunity to be able to access the services that are not offered in our community they will choose to move closer to those opportunities.

How have people who have used it described their experience?
The people that have been using it are enjoying it as it has been mostly seniors. They have been able to schedule shopping trips, and our driver has been accommodating by taking them all over the city and returning when they were ready. There has not been many times when passenger schedules have been competing with each other, and they have been booking in small groups. If they go in with a plan and their plan is completed early they come home early. All bookings each way are pre-booked, so we know the agenda before the bus leaves town and the driver can accommodate.

What are the long-term plans?
We are almost through the first year and after the second year the MD will have to determine if the program can be sustainable by itself. Will there be further provincial funding, or are the municipalities willing to subsidize the operation to provide this service. Currently, with the Alberta Transportation grant helping to offset the operational costs the bus can travel with one person but we all know that is not sustainable without subsidization by some level of government.

If the program is not utilized it will be at risk of becoming a similar service to what we used to provide through FCSS: one trip a month, and cancelled trips because of lack of riders or fee for service. All of this will have to be reviewed carefully at the end of the pilot period.

Is the bus only for medical appointments or can one book a ride for other purposes?
The bus is not just for medical appointments and most of its use has been for shopping by seniors that would like to access the box stores to get materials that are not available locally. We have had people booking one way travel to get to the airport rather than leave a vehicle parked in the lots at the airport. I believe that the community is not utilizing the program to its full potential. Local youth could be booking the bus as groups to go to attend a movie, go bowling during their summer vacation as an example. The pilot program was to address the need of rural Alberta to be able to access medical, social and recreational opportunities, and it is open to all ages that include youth with permission of a guardian if they are under 16.

Are you contemplating being able to pick people up at their residences?
We currently pick up people in Spirit River and Rycroft, as there are other local taxi service that can be used, but our policy says that if it makes better sense to pick them up at their residence it can be considered.

Are you contemplating pick-up spots throughout the G5? (Example: Wanham, Savanna,Woking?)
We have been in discussion about picking up from other municipalities. We have to be careful about how long the day becomes for our driver as there are restrictions on driving time. We have discussed about pick-ups in Woking or along Highway 2 as possibilities for Saddle Hills and Birch Hills residents.

We also asked if communities north of the Peace River were interested in bringing their residents as far as Rycroft, and we could take them the rest of the way to Grande Prairie and they could pick them back up at night.

With many of our local seniors now living at Lakeview Lodge in Clairmont, there is the possibility of taking visitors from our community and dropping them off there to visit for the day and pick them up in the afternoon to return home.

What is your evaluation of the project so far?
The people using the service really enjoy the opportunity, and they really appreciate our driver, Ron Oe. We hear nothing but compliments. We would like to see more utilization by the public. There are still many that are not aware that the service is available to them but those that use the service are continually returning for new trips. We think that there is a perfect opportunity for kids and grandkids to purchase future trips for their parents or grandparents rather than getting them a Knick Knack or tie for a gift or better yet join them on a trip to the city to see something that they can’t see every day at home. Gather up a crew of people and take in a movie or bowling and leave the driving and parking to our driver.

We are in a pilot phase, so we can explore opportunities to add to the experience of living in our communities by accessing that which we do not have access to.