How does Prince Albert's transit system stack up?

Tyler Clarke
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Public transit user Patrick Fairbairn speaks at Monday’s city council meeting, during which he encouraged the city to look at Moose Jaw’s transit system. 

Faced with a potential re-tooling, some are comparing Prince Albert’s public transportation system to that of other cities.


Concluding that Prince Albert needs greater “bang for their buck” when it comes to its $1.26 million public transportation budget, local transit user Patrick Fairbairn encouraged city administration to look at Moose Jaw’s system.

Moose Jaw transportation manager Mark Sture, in turn, forwarded the Daily Herald to Brandon’s public transportation system, citing theirs as another good example.

At an annual cost of $1.19 million, Moose Jaw’s public transportation system is more comparable in scope to Prince Albert’s.

Moose Jaw’s bus system runs on half-hour cycles between 7:15 a.m. and 6:45 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with Thursday and Saturday service running an extra three hours into the evening.

Prince Albert’s Monday to Friday service runs a half hour earlier, from 6:45 a.m. to 7:15 p.m., and its Saturday service runs from 9:45 a.m. to 5:15 a.m. – all on half-hour cycles.

Moose Jaw’s longer than usual Thursday evening runs are due to the fact that “Traditionally, Thursday used to be the shopping night and that never changed,” Sture explained.

Whereas Prince Albert’s cost recovery on transit revenue was 44 per cent in 2012, Moose Jaw’s was only about 36 per cent.

In 2012, Prince Albert taxpayers paid a $664,805 subsidy whereas Moose Jaw taxpayers undercut public transit by $801,862 in 2013.

Unlike Prince Albert, which has tendered out bus service to First Canada, Moose Jaw has owned and operated its own bus system since 1955.

Whether a municipality owns its own fleet or leases one, “There’s no right or wrong answer,” Sture said, noting that leasing results in a consistent annual cost and purchasing results in a larger up-front cost.

“It’s all a question of how a municipality wants to operate.”

Although Sture notes that Brandon’s population of about 50,000 people puts the city at another level than Moose Jaw (and Prince Albert), he said that Brandon might provide some inspiration, concluding, “They have a much more mature system than we do.”


Brandon’s transit system

Brandon’s $4.9-million public transportation system -- including regular transit, special needs transportation and transportation to their municipal airport -- benefits from 50/50 funding from the Province of Manitoba.

This funding “was cut off for many years in Manitoba, but it’s back in place and we’re just delighted,” Brandon transportation manager Carla Richardson said.

“It cut back on the municipal portion and allowed us to set up a reserve in order to upgrade our equipment, so we are excited that we are the only fully accessible fleet in Manitoba.”

These new low-floor buses can accommodate people on wheelchairs and walkers.

Brandon runs at a 35 per cent cost recovery from the fare box, which has fees of $1.20 for adults and 95 cents for youth and seniors.

This is considerably lower than both Moose Jaw and Prince Albert, which both have an adult rate of $2.25.

Fares used to be a touch higher, Richardson said, noting that they were lowered when the city eliminated transfers.

With people arguing with bus drivers about the time they had on transfers and people wanting to use invalid transfers, they proved too problematic, “so now every time you board a bus you pay.”

There are always improvements to be made in transit. You’re always looking at routes and stops. Carla Richardson

Brandon’s 2013 bus ridership was 1.18 million last year -- a far cry from Prince Albert’s 2012 ridership of 324,457.

“For a city our size, we’re quite fortunate, I believe, to have the number of routes that we have and the service hours we have -- being 18 hours per day -- and we recently added Sunday service, so we go seven days per week as well as statutory holidays,” Richardson said.

Depending on the route, Brandon transit service runs from about 6 a.m. to about midnight Monday through Friday, with buses arriving every half hour until the early evening and then hourly in the evening.

Saturday bus service runs during this same timeframe on an hourly basis, and a recently introduced Sunday service runs from about 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.


Constant improvements

“There are always improvements to be made in transit,” Richardson said. “You’re always looking at routes and stops.”

Late 2012 saw Brandon roll out a smart card effort -- similar to Prince Albert’s parking meter cards -- that can be re-loaded at the city’s transit info centre.

This past year saw revenue grow by $250,000, Richardson said, crediting a cut reduction in fare evasion and customer disputes.

Moose Jaw is currently looking at the possibility of extending weekday service to between 9:30 p.m. and 9:45 p.m., though Sture notes that some fine-tuning still needs to take place prior to budget discussions.

“Along with that comes some proposed cutbacks during the day,” he explained. “So, essentially the funds aren’t going to increase -- (we’re) stretching the dollar.”

Key to public transportation systems success is customer service, Richardson said.

“Our logo and all of our branding says ‘Brandon transit -- people moving people,’ and the focus is very much on customer service,” she said.

“We strive to deliver the customer in a safe and efficient and regular manner with an emphasis on customer service at all times.”


Prince Albert’s future       

Already similar to Moose Jaw’s service, the recommendations Prince Albert transportation manager Keri Sexsmith put forward in her report to council would bring Prince Albert bus service to a similar level as Brandon’s, minus Sundays.

Service hours would increase to 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays at an extra cost of $170,000 and Saturday hours would increase to 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. at an added cost of $90,000.

Five new low floor buses should be purchased within a 10-year plan at a cost of about $450,000 each, she notes.

During Monday’s city council meeting, the consensus among councillors was that sweeping change is unlikely this year, but that the city should start looking into its options.

The conversation is expected to continue at upcoming public 2014 budget discussions, which have yet to see their dates firmed up. 

Organizations: Prince Albert, Daily Herald

Geographic location: Moose Jaw, Manitoba

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