Could public transportation work locally?

By Mike Renzella

The Haldimand Press

HALDIMAND—Following a recent media report announcing that Haldimand County had not applied for the Community Transportation Grant program that will dole out $760,000 to Norfolk County by 2023, Haldimand County Mayor Ken Hewitt acknowledged that Haldimand is actively looking at options, despite the complexities involved.

“Public mobility and transportation has been a longstanding challenge in Haldimand County and many other rural communities,” he said. “The lack of viable transportation options in rural areas makes it difficult for residents to take advantage of employment and educational opportunities, attend health and social service appointments, or participate in social and leisure activities.”

Hewitt said Council recognizes the need to “examine potential options” in bringing some type of public transit into the county, listing it as one of the priorities of the 2018-2022 Council term.

“The challenge for Haldimand is finding a solution that is successful, sustainable financially, and effective in meeting the needs of residents,” he explained. “Providing publicly funded mobility improvements in rural and small-town communities can be challenging given the distances required to travel, small population, and the cost.”

On the list of options being considered are a potential connection to Hamilton Transit, dial-a-bus type services, ridesharing services, and something similar to the Ride Norfolk program. Whatever option the County may go with, it won’t come overnight: “Developing a successful public transit system is a complex, multi-faceted, and multi-year commitment that requires not only significant economic and human resources, but community engagement and analysis,” said Hewitt.

On Ride Norfolk, which offers year-round transportation and daily busses to Brantford, Hewitt said: “While we can all agree that public transit is a service that is heavily subsidized by tax payers, there is a threshold where the economic sense outweighs the intended use. It was reported that Norfolk received several hundred thousand dollars from the Province; it did not state that currently each local tax payer is paying approximately $70 annually on the (tax) levy to provide this service that has seen about 400 to 500 riders per year.”

A call for comments on the issue led to some spirited debate on social media. Of the over 200 comments made on a Caledonia-based social media group discussion, the majority favoured a public transit option: “Not having a bus system from Dover to Hamilton is archaic. A bus system years ago gave the folks without a car access to work and connections to others,” said Lynda Leach. “Seniors would have more access to visit friends and family and health care in the city.”

“It is essential for some form of public transportation…. As people age or get sick, they become unable to drive. This forces people to rely on friends/family, move, or become reclusive,” said Calvin Eady, adding that car ownership is financially not an option for many. “Anyone who claims to care about senior citizens (which most politicians claim), sick people, or working-class people should be prioritizing a public transit strategy.”

On the other hand, some people cited a fear that public transit could bring city crime rates into the county and others raised concerns that the geographic layout of Haldimand makes such a system difficult to start and maintain.

A Dunnville-based social media group also had many comments in favour: “We stay at a local trailer park towards Port Maitland all season long and my boyfriend drives, but he works so I am here often with kids and no way to go to town or even go to a restaurant. Some sort of transportation for the farther points of Dunnville would be nice,” said Crystal Fluker.

Robert Finch disagreed on the focus being for local drives: “I would think cross-county transit demand would be limited, personally. Cabs or Uber can easily fill that void. I would think there would be more uptake having regular bus service into Hamilton, Welland, Port Colbourne, St. Catharines, etc. from the Haldimand urban centres.”

Sue Wilkins suggested the use of GoGoGrandparent, which uses a phone call to send an Uber driver to a resident’s home for transportion to common locations around the community, such as the library or community centre, for set rates from $4-6.

Hewitt committed to transparency with the public for any future plans: “While we have not fully flushed out the full costs of public transit in Haldimand, I can assure you that there will be a direct cost annually to maintain such a program, regardless of how much funding comes from the Province. For that reason, public transit will be an informed decision whereby each Haldimand tax payer will know what it costs them before we proceed.”