Paratransit service faces funding crisis says CSC

A Community Service Centre (CSC) paratransit bus sits outside their office on Second Avenue East in Prince Albert. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Prince Albert senior Marian Sand has had a busy weekend.

On Saturday, she went to get groceries, and had coffee with friends. On Sunday, she went to church. Now, she’s worried none of those activities will be available to her if the Community Service Centre (CSC) cuts its paratransit service.

The service saw a significant boost in ridership last year, but CSC officials say they aren’t getting enough funding to keep up with demand. That could mean reduced daytime, weekend, and evening services, and that’s something Sand hopes will never happen.

“I have had good service with this transportation and I don’t want to see it gone,” she said. “I have had excellent service. I’ve got no complaints.”

The CSC paratransit provided 37,145 rides in 2023, an increase of 11,405 from the year before. At budget time, the CSC requested $675,285 from the City of Prince Albert, an $103,521 increase.

Without that funding, the CSC says it will have to eliminate 4,137 weekend and evening rides, and substantially reduce daytime and weekend trips. Sand said she’s considered taking a taxi or riding the bus, but as someone on a fixed income, the cost is too much. She’s also concerned about her safety.

“These (paratransit) bus drivers, they wait until you get into the house,” Sand says. “They always say, ‘we’ll wait until you open the door. We won’t leave.’”

The CSC provides paratransit service for residents with disabilities. Terry Fjeld, a Prince Albert private home care operator, said the service provides residents with a lifeline to the community.

She houses four residents in her care home, and drives them around Prince Albert when she’s able, but that’s not always feasible. If the paratransit service stops running evenings and weekends, she said, the residents who live in her home will be cut off.

“They’re all on very low fixed incomes,” Fjeld explained. “It would be very limiting to their ability to get out into the community and do some of those activities. It’s a social thing, and it’s lots of fun.

“People say, ‘well, why don’t you give them a ride? I try, but there are other individuals and I can’t be in four places at one time,” she added. “It makes it very limited and if someone refuses to leave the house, I have to respect their wishes and I can’t take them so this service has just been so welcome. (It’s) allowed … my guys to go out into the community more than if the service wasn’t here.”

The CSC dipped into its reserves to fund the access to transportation program in 2023. In the 2022-23 fiscal year, it ran a deficit of $49,201 to avoid cutting back services.

CSC Executive Officer Bill Powalinsky said there have been private companies who have tried to start paratransit services in PA, especially accessible taxis, but without consistent success.

Buses and taxis aren’t options for their clients, he said, because most clients need more than just a ride. They need someone to make sure they’re getting in and out of the vehicle safely too.

“Our drivers go to the door, assist the passengers to the bus, and at the end of the trip … escort to the destination, and then back, the same there,” he explained. “There is an enhanced level (of service).”

Powalinsky said the city has put a lot of effort to make their facilities, like the new indoor rinks and aquatic centre, wheelchair accessible. If the service won’t run evenings and weekends, he said, those new features won’t be used.

Mayor Greg Dionne said the CSC has brought their concerns to council, but the City wants to sign a contract for service before talking about additional funding.

“Once we get that contract signed, then we’ll review ’24, because then we’ll have a clear agreement on what they’re supposed to supply and what they’re supposed to deliver and how they’re supposed to spend our money,” he said.

Dionne said they have a plan to get the agreement with the CSC done by May 31. He’s also not worried they won’t get an agreement done by that time.

“They’re a great organization,” he said. “It’s important to meet again. We both want to provide great service to the people of PA.”