Jasper is hopping on board with public transit.
At their July 11 committee of the whole meeting, Jasper Municipal Council passed a motion to engage a public transit service provider for the community and surrounding national park amenities, starting in September.
Critically, the program includes creating a partnership with the Grande Yellowhead Public School Division to establish a dedicated school bus route, a deal worth $115,000—or approximately 20 per cent of service’s $500,000 price tag—to the MOJ.
The decision to authorize town administrators to sort out details for a three year contract with Prince George-based PWT Transit came after a marathon debate session in which councillors went back and forth about the merits of providing public transportation versus the costs of doing so.
“I know it’s difficult, it’s nerve-wracking and it’s a lot of money, but I think communities need to be moving forward with public transit,” said councillor Scott Wilson, who voted for the motion which passed by a narrow, 4-3 vote count.
Councillors Kathleen Waxer, Wendy Hall and Mayor Richard Ireland also supported the motion. Councillors Helen Kelleher-Empey, Ralph Melnyk and Rico Damota voted against it.
“I am totally against taking on the school bus,” Kelleher-Empey said. “It’s like we’re jumping in with two feet into this transportation.”
In his presentation to council, Chief Administrative Officer Bill Given reminded councillors that the concept of establishing a public transit system in Jasper came out of a post-COVID economic recovery task force, made up primarily of non-municipal stakeholders. Before that, a 2018 Transportation Master Plan and a 2011 Community Sustainability Plan set the table for the discussion.
“This idea has been incrementally built,” Given said. “Now we’re at the stage where we decide whether we provide this service or not.”
Coun. Wendy Hall said she is in favour of public transit. Her research into other communities which provide bus service for students, residents and visitors indicated the proposed costs for the Jasper service are reasonable.
“This is not outrageous compared to other cities I looked into,” she said.
Coun. Melnyk, who voted in opposition to the motion, advocated for a seasonal service for the benefit of workers, campers and visitors.
“The school board has demonstrated they can operate a bus service on their own, they don’t need us,” he said. “We’re trying to force some ideas together.”
Coun. Damota also voted no. He indicated he thought the bidding process for the original RFP was flawed and was distressed that the financial forecast for the transit service would put the MOJ further in the red.
“If we’re going to operate at a loss…to me it’s kind of a no-win for the community,” he said.
But public transportation operates at a loss in every municipality where it is established, CAO Given told councillors.
“Subsidy is a recognition that there are broad benefits to the community,” Given said.
Earlier in the meeting, council heard from community development officer Lisa Riddell, who was reporting on the MOJ’s Community Conversations. Community Conversations are monthly facilitated discussions with residents to identify and address changing needs in the community. Riddell’s report specifically named the lack of affordable transportation in town as a continued barrier to Jasperites connecting with the community.
“Specifically for seasonal staff, it’s difficult for them to get to locations outside of town,” Riddell said.
While there are approximately 700 staff who live on property at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, which is 8 km from town, it was the transportation requirements of 36 elementary and junior/senior high school students who call the JPL home that precipitated the partnership with GYPSD. Last fall, the school board created a pilot program to bus those kids to town, and then in the spring, the provincial government changed eligibility requirements for funded transportation to school. With the rule change, approximately 70 students in the townsite were suddenly captured in the funding’s scope. With the school board scrambling to find bus drivers and the town’s strategic planning documents recommending the exploration of public transit options, a partnership was created.
“We’ve heard our residents are challenged around transportation and are seeking more opportunities to connect to the community, and we are challenged to pay 100 per cent of the cost of some sort of transportation system,” Given said. “These type of partnership arrangements are a good solution for that.”
Councillors were briefed on the program’s draft transit schedules and proposed routes. The student bus service would be distinct from the public bus system, Given pointed out.
“I like the idea of busses being strictly for students, with kids having the option of using transit to get home if they stay at school for things like volleyball,” Coun. Wendy Hall said.
To be ready in time for September, the municipality is entering into a “fully turn key” solution, Given said, meaning PWT Transit, which operates in communities across Alberta and B.C., will use their fleet for the first three years of the project. Fully-accessible busses, which Jasper will own outright, are scheduled to arrive in 2024.
The fleet will start with two “executive style,” 24-passenger units, with a school bus as a “backup for the backup,” Given said.
Administration anticipates the service to run 3,710 hours per year, at a rate of $134.86/hour. If the service hours are 20 per cent below or above the anticipated number, the parties will renegotiate the rate.
“If it’s more, the municipality might ask for a discount or if it’s above, the contractor could ask for an increased rate,” Given said.
Also notable in the terms of the contract is a “cancelation of convenience” clause. The town retains the right, Given explained, to cancel the contract for any reason—subject to 180 days notice and a $5,000 “demobilization fee.” The motion directed administration to negotiate the 180 day term to 90 days.
Mayor Richard Ireland was cautious in lending his support to the recommendation to complete the contract with PWT Transit. He questioned if ratepayers were being given a fair deal. Given responded that outside of Jasper’s comparatively high home assessments, when it comes to school transportation funding, all Albertans are paying the same.
“Is funding for student transportation equitable? Explicitly, yes,” Given said.
Hours into the discussion, council took a respite from public debate to enter into a brief in-camera meeting. When they came out of the private exchange, in which potential funding partnerships to the tune of an additional $202,000 were discussed, Wilson reminded his fellow councillors that the issues of climate change and affordability permeate nearly every discussion they have around the council table.
“These are things municipalities should be addressing,” he said. “I feel we owe it to our residents and visitors to the community and the national park.”
Bob Covey // email@example.com