Public transit offer leaves Highlands East council with tough choice

By Sue Tiffin

Published April 3 2018

To avoid “double dipping” in the provincial gas tax funding program Highlands East council will need to choose between being part of a transportation service being proposed by Bancroft Community Transit (BCT) or by Haliburton County.

Cardiff in Highlands East municipality already makes use of the Gas Tax Funding for Public Transit program through the Ministry of Transportation having partnered with the TROUT service now operated by BCT that brings residents from Cardiff into Bancroft once a week. The municipality provides an annual $10000 donation toward the service.

BCT has provided the public transit service route from Cardiff to Bancroft on Fridays since August 2017. Because the organization receives gas tax funding they are able to participate in the community transportation grant application to enhance or grow their current service.

“In February 2018 a representative from Bancroft Community Transit notified us that an application for MTO funding was being submitted that included the Municipality of Highlands East” wrote Shannon Hunter Highlands East CAO in a March 7 report to council. “I was told that the application is based around the need for specialized transit alongside a dedicated public transit bus route to accommodate the distance or vast geographical distance that separates us; working towards affordably connecting our communities together.”

“I was unaware at this time that the application had been submitted and requested a copy for council’s review and advised the Bancroft Community Transit that we were unable to provide a letter of support at this time” wrote Hunter. “Due to the fact that the application has been submitted and the fact that Haliburton County is also investigating options for public transit discussion and direction need to transpire.”

Gwen Coish director of operations BCT told council on March 21 that using the grant the organization is looking at expanding to offer five-days-a-week service as well as bus shelters for riders and possibly extending service to outlying areas including Belleville and Kingston.

“BCT has been operating public transit only since August of last year” she told council. “[There are] still things about the public transit side of things that are new however we are not new to transportation. We’ve been providing transportation for over 17 years rural transportation. We are aware of the challenges that we face. When we took on public transit we knew it would be a big learning curve but we also had prior planning prior to this [we] talked about what if we were ever given the opportunity to partner what would that look like? One of the main things was to be able to grow the service we currently provide. We’ve been looking at this area for the last three years in terms of the transportation we provide.”

In the last fiscal year Coish said BCT has assisted with more than 4000 rides from Harcourt Cardiff and Wilberforce area for medical transportation.

“We’re looking at this branch in the same way we look at Hastings Highlands or Wollaston in offering a specialized transportation service that’s affordable” she said.

Cam Mackenzie Ward 1 councillor asked for a ballpark figure of the number of people who use the current return service from Cardiff into Bancroft.

“Fifteen to 20 people on a regular basis” said Coish. “It can vary. It depends on their appointments it depends obviously on what their plans are … It would be helpful if we were able to expand it to be able to get more riders as well.”

“I had no idea it was used that much” said Mackenzie who commended the reasonable rates of the service which Coish said would stay as they are.

In December Haliburton County council received a business case for public transportation in the county submitted by a local transportation task force that had been formed in 2016. In January council opted against applying for the community transportation grant which would necessitate a commitment of five years to a project. At that time it was reported in the Haliburton Echo the idea of a five-year commitment made councillors uneasy especially since they felt there was not yet enough information on how some sort of transit system might be implemented. It was decided then the county would hire a consultant to complete a transportation project implementation study. County planning director Charlsey White attended the council meeting in Highlands East on March 21 and helped break down different options available to councillors during the conversation about the sometimes convoluted process.

Should Highlands East council decide to commit to the five-year plan necessary to solidify the community transportation grant application through BCT neither the county nor Highlands East could receive provincial gas tax money for transportation services which would be provided outside that program within the same area according to White.

“The municipality could still choose to participate in a county transportation system but their portion of the costs associated with county transportation would not be eligible for gas tax where the two programs overlapped” White told the Echo. “The rule is no double dipping.”

“I’m one councillor caught between a rock and a hard place with probably no ‘win’ option” said Cec Ryall. Ryall represents Ward 3 which he noted was the most westerly ward in the municipality.

“I could certainly understand Wards 1 and 2 because they’re very close to Bancroft. Ward 4 is in the middle and kind of splits itself both ways but probably a lot going to the Haliburton area. Ward 3 I’d say 80 per cent of our traffic goes to Haliburton and specifically to the hospital and various other amenities in the area. What you’re asking our people to do is to make a decision about whether we support something – and I’d have to go against my colleagues – which would take us east to Bancroft which is where they don’t normally go and preclude ourselves to going west where everyone does go in order to accommodate the funding model. It leaves me with a very very tough decision. Go with my colleagues in which case if they were to go that route or I could look at what my constituents want and that would certainly not be to go to Bancroft on a regular basis in sacrificing the Haliburton route on a regular basis. So now how the hell do I deal with that is my problem. Because I can’t really exclude ourselves from the Haliburton brand and then that’s it we’re out of the county more or less for transportation. It makes it very very difficult for me … I don’t know why the Ontario government has placed us in this kind of position. We’re not double dipping here.”

“They’ve set us up to compete” said Coish.

An enhanced BCT service could possibly offer routes for Haliburton County residents to Bancroft but also to Lindsay Peterborough and Ottawa according to Coish.

“So the long-term plan is to provide transportation to Haliburton and Minden and that’s easy to say but do you have a business plan that lays it all out” asked Deputy Mayor and Ward 2 Councillor Suzanne Partridge.

Coish said the group had a strategic plan that identifies BCT vehicles in this area.

“The way I’m seeing it is if Highlands East goes with BCT and the MTO grant it’s sort of a crap shoot as to whether or not we’ll get transportation to Haliburton and Minden” said Partridge. “That’s not carved in stone.”

“Yep it is” replied Coish. “It was our plan back three years ago to be able to connect the dots from our area into Haliburton. It’s definitely going to happen however I guess it depends on where your commitments are in regards to where you allocate the gas tax dollars.”

“It’s also a crap shoot in Haliburton” said Ward 4 Councillor Joan Barton. “There are no wheels on the ground. There’s a 75-page report. That’s what we’ve got from Haliburton. We don’t have any wheels on the ground.”

County planning director Charlsey White summarized for Highlands East council the main options proposed for a transportation system in Haliburton County including a book-share-ride service to allow riders transportation when they needed it.

“It’s where people need to go and trying to create a system that meets those flows of people for what they actually need and what they want to do” said White.

Barton expressed concern about the proposed plan.

“The ultimate goal for Haliburton at this point is book-share-ride?” she asked. “You know that community services tried to flog that … in Wilberforce for years and had no success because no one wants to use book-share-ride?”

“So that is the business case based on all the data we collected from our agencies hospitals school boards residents themselves” said White. “We went out and talked to users themselves and everybody said they would be on board with it which is why it was one of what we recommended … We wanted to provide something that really touches for everybody.”

“Where I’m caught is I want to do both and I don’t want to jeopardize anything with [the] county at all” said Mayor Dave Burton. “I think you guys can do that. I want to play in both sandboxes.”

“We want it all” said Partridge.

“Yeah why not. We want it all. We’re important” said Burton.

“If what you’re saying is you can take our individuals to Peterborough Haliburton Minden from Cardiff to Wilberforce then I would almost ask if we could try to get the county and BCT together to talk and maybe there’s a plan that can be looked at together” said Hunter.

“If you guys could work out some kind of deal or co-operation our entire municipality would be on that one because I know I would be” said Ryall. “If we do support what you’re talking about doing – it’s a good thing I’m not debating whether it’s a good thing or not – it takes us out of the picture for the other side which is where my challenge is. I’d like to hear more about what we’re going to be able to do with the county before I make a decision because this has got to be one of the toughest decisions in my eight years as a councillor that I’m going to have to vote on.”

Council asked that BCT and the county meet to discuss sharing options and report back.

“We said OK you’ve got Haliburton that has spent a lot of time did a lot of studies and has a plan in place for action they want to try to go forward but then you’ve got Bancroft Community Transit over on the other side saying ‘well we’re doing it we can do it and can do all these wonderful things’” Hunter told the Echo. “At the end of the day we said can these two parties not talk to each other?”

Coish said that potentially the MTO could offer more opportunity for time for the two groups to meet.

“We need to explore how this would look and what this would mean for all areas of Highlands East” Coish told the Echo. “We need to do a little more homework to figure out how we can all work together so that no current service is impacted negatively. BCT is looking at expanding current service so that all wards in Highlands East are part of this service however we also support [the] County of Haliburton’s initiative here and are happy to explore this so that all can benefit in a positive and impactful way.”

“At the end of the day it’s what’s best for the majority of the residents” said Hunter.