Elise Stolte: ‘Can’t keep getting angry.’ Riders desert Edmonton Transit, go back to driving

Daniel Huber was such a dedicated transit rider, he let his driver’s licence lapse.

No more.

He was standing on a curb on St. Albert Trail this September with a senior when a full-to-capacity bus blew past again. The senior looked ready to cry and Huber could feel his blood boil.

He realized it’s just not worth it.

“This is not going to get fixed and I can’t keep getting angry and worked up about it,” said Huber, a chef in Edmonton who had been riding what he sees as a steadily eroding transit system for 18 years.

City of Edmonton officials blame the economic downturn for falling ridership numbers but Huber’s story echoes my experience. It’s also exactly what experts have been predicting for years.

The city’s bus system is getting stretched thinner and thinner. It hasn’t had significant new investment in years — small wonder ridership is now lower than it was in 2010.

Huber got his driver’s licence again in October. He lives on a major bus route — Route 128 — but he says it’s not worth leaving an hour early because Edmonton’s transit is unreliable.

Now Edmonton Transit officials are proposing $4 cash fares, up from $3.25, for a system the city heavily subsidizes with tax dollars. I say, what are we paying for? Fix the system first, then let’s talk prices.

Council is trying to fix the system. It has a bus route redesign scheduled to roll out in June 2020. But it’s not adding service — it takes service away from lesser-used routes, concentrates on main corridors and cuts an additional 50,000 service hours.

Edmonton Transit is trying to rearrange routes while simultaneously coping with increased congestion and limited new investment.

It needs 10,000 more bus hours each year just to offer the same service. For most of the last decade, it didn’t get that investment and has instead cut back on community routes and weekend service. That’s why a 2014 city audit found up to 42 per cent of buses were off schedule.

This year, the operating budget paints a dismal picture.

Even if council wants to expand, bus garages are at capacity. The $210-million Kathleen Andrews Transit Garage simply replaces Westwood.

In addition, the budget warns a “high percentage” of the bus and train fleet is operating beyond its serviceable life, and Edmonton can’t be sure what provincial and federal grants will be available to replace them.

At the same time, Edmonton’s population is aging and seniors are expected to add demand on the system.

Basically, buses were ignored for years in favour of a shiny new trains and council has continued to let service decline as it struggles to find an answer.

It can’t blame riders like Huber for leaving a broken system.

But it’s a vicious cycle. Now Huber is driving one more car stuck in Edmonton’s mounting congestion.

Edmonton needs a reset.

That’s why Coun. Aaron Paquette’s motion is key — not because he’s asking for free transit, which was just a distraction — but because it asks council to look at what value for money it gets.

We need to know what ridership levels are required to relieve congestion. How could that be achieved, at what cost, and how does that compare to the cost of widening roads?

What’s the economic impact of giving Edmonton residents access to jobs across the city, and what damage is caused when service is too unreliable to use?

Council debated the motion Tuesday, then referred it to administration to estimate a budget just to study the questions. Already, Edmonton Transit has a proposed budget of $336 million for 2019, offset by $140 million in ticket revenue.

Outside council Tuesday, Mayor Don Iveson said he believes the bus route overhaul will increase ridership, which will eventually increase revenue and allow Edmonton to grow the system.

New smart payment cards also coming in 2020 will let transit charge by distance and give discounts for off-peak travel. Opening the Valley Line LRT will free up buses to redeploy in the rest of the city.

But council needs to recognize what’s happening today — from a rider’s perspective, it has dropped the ball.

Lori Simon, who lives near Anthony Henday Drive and Ellerslie Road, used the bus and LRT to get to part-time jobs for the last 10 years.

But slowly, the buses stopped running earlier, the schedule was cut back at night and on weekends.

She started spending more on taxis to bridge the gap than the cost of her monthly pass, and it was a 90-minute commute to and from work each day. She bought a car last April. She’ll never go back. “I got three hours back in my day. It’s wonderful.”

estolte@postmedia.com

twitter.com/estolte

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