Bench removal from downtown transit station not permanent says mayor

A bus driver waits for passengers to board at Prince Albert's downtown transit station. -- Herald file photo

Mayor Greg Dionne vowed benches removed from the downtown transit terminal would be back as soon as the City upgraded its nearby security system.

The City removed benches from the area on Feb. 11 after receiving reports of altercations and threats aimed at City bus drivers. The removal received plenty of criticism from local homelessness advocates who argue it unfairly targets homeless residents, but on Monday Dionne assured residents the move was just temporary.

“We did have some trouble there, and it was because (non-passengers) were congregating around (the terminal),” Dionne said during an interview after Monday’s city council meeting. “It’s my full intention to get the benches back there as quickly as we can. We’re going to put more surveillance cameras up. We’re going to (put in) a better security system. We’re right behind the fire hall there, so it gives us lots of good opportunities to improve.”

Dionne said he’s taken plenty of call about the decision from seniors and other groups who weren’t happy the benches were removed. There is no set time for when they’ll be back, but Dionne said they’re working as fast as possible.

“Once we get those improvements in, which I hope will be swift, then yes, we’ll be getting the benches back,” he explained.

Keri Sapsford, transit manager for the City of Prince Albert, said they’ve had two incidents where bus drivers were forced to call police due to altercations at the transit station. She emphasized that regular bus riders were not the problem.

The City did consider other options like playing music or improving the aesthetics to make the area more pleasant to be in. The transit station already meets several safety guidelines, and since few riders wait more than five minutes for a bus, Sapsford said simply removing the benches was the best option.

“It’s not a decision we made lightly,” she explained during an interview on Tuesday. “It’s never a nice decision to take something away from somebody who is just seeking shelter. We know that, but it was one of those things where we had to weigh all of our options, and that’s what came out on top.”

Sapsford said it’s too soon to say how effective the measure has been, but they’ve had no further reports of violence since Feb. 11.

The City has a meeting scheduled next week with police and the contractor who provides the bus services to go through de-escalation training. Sapsford said removing the benches was a temporary measure, and it’s unlikely it will be permanent.

“We were kind of stuck,” Sapsford said. “This is a public place. What can we do to make drivers feel safe (when they) come to work? We didn’t have a lot of options on our hands…. For now, the benches were a quick and easy solution to make the drivers feel a little bit safer coming into work.”

–with files from Peter Lozinski