City cuts rush hour route and early morning transit hours, but Mayor commits to keeping bus service open

A Prince Albert city bus waits for passengers. -- Herald file photo

Prince Albert city council voted by a 6-3 margin to temporarily remove one bus route and reduce early morning hours of operation to try and save money during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The City expects to save a combined $17,000 in operational costs by halting the Rush Hour Bus route and starting transit operations at 7:45 a.m. instead of 6:45 a.m. Those cost savings will not come into effect until May 6. The City will also save almost $700 a week in fuel costs.

Mayor Greg Dionne said these will likely be the last cuts council makes to city bus services during the pandemic.

“I can’t see us reducing it more,” Dionne said after Monday’s city council meeting. “What really drove the transit is the schools … being closed, because that’s who we carried the most in the morning at 6:45. (It’s) students and teachers and everyone else going to school. We don’t have that, so we’re better off to save today because we won’t be getting it in the future.”

Prior to the pandemic, roughly 100 passengers rode Prince Albert bus services between 6:45 a.m. and 7:45 a.m. That number has plummeted since the COVID-19 outbreak according to the City’s transit department, with an average of 20 riders in the first hour. That works out to four passengers per bus.

“This is where you always say, ‘let’s vote with the facts,’” Dionne said during the meeting. “Well, here’s the facts. (People) are not riding the bus. Saskatchewan Polytechnic is closed. The schools are closed.”

Couns. Dennis Ogrodnick, Blake Edwards and Terra Lennox-Zepp all voted against the motion. Edwards was the most vocal critic. He said some residents still rely and public transit, and he worried about whether cutting hours would make it difficult to get groceries or make medical appointments. He also worried the cuts would lead to a long-term decrease in ridership, and negatively affect the few businesses that are still open in areas like Cornerstone.

“We’ve worked hard to try and build ridership, and now we’re going to say, ‘you know what riders? Too bad. You’re going to have to go find an alternative,” he said. “We can’t afford to lose ridership…. We’re going to see a bit of savings, but we’re going to lose in the long run.”

Lennox-Zepp worried it was a bad time to reduce bus service given the provincial government had just released its five-step plan to reopen Saskatchewan. She said many retail employees use the bus to get to work, and rolling back service would simply add to their problems. She also worried about the effect it would have on riders travelling to medical appointments.

“With our city bus service, the schools are one part of it, but there are many places that citizens are using our transit to get to that are very important,” she said.

On April 6, the City of Prince Albert notified First Bus that they were looking into reducing service. The City was required to give 30 days’ notice before making any changes.

Transit numbers have dropped significantly since provincial restrictions came into place in March. An average of 300 people used Prince Albert’s bus service during peak hours prior to the pandemic. However, peak service ridership is now down to less than 80 passengers per hour, according to data gathered from March 16-31.