Monday, December 14, 2015

Unreliable transit in Abbotsford due to chronic underfunding

Last month, I went on a bit of a transit adventure in the Fraser Valley. While catching buses in Abbotsford, I noticed that they were never on time. Anecdotally, I was told that this was a regular occurrence. It seemed odd to me that a transit provider would always have its buses running late, so I decided to do a little research. It turns out that Abbotsford's transit system does indeed have a problem with late buses, but that is only the surface of the problems with the system.

Outside of Metro Vancouver and the Capital Region (Victoria), the provincial government pays for about 45% of the operation cost of public transit. The remaining costs are paid for by fares and local property tax. In Abbotsford, about 30% of the operating costs of transit are paid for with property tax.

Communities outside of Metro Vancouver and the Capital Region have a great deal; the provincial government provides the highest operation grants for transit in Canada. BC Transit works with local governments to find out how much transit service should be provided. Basically, BC Transit will match the transit service level with the amount of property tax that municipalities are willing to invest in transit service.

Kelowna and Abbotsford-Mission have about the same population, but when it comes to transit service, these two areas couldn’t be any more different. Kelowna decided that transit was an important part of their transportation network.

In Kelowna, there is a real frequent transit network plus a B-Line style, RapidBus service along Highway 97. According to information posted on BC Transit's website, Kelowna’s transit system had ridership of 4,848,971 with operating costs of $22.06 million.

In contract, Abbotsford Council has decided to fund transit service at a much lower level. The transit system that serves Abbotsford had ridership of 2,347,899 with operating costs of $12.92 million. Because of limited funding, transit service in Abbotsford is stretched to its limits.

I found a report on the City of Abbotsford’s website noting the current state of transit in that municipality.

The Central Fraser Valley (CFV) Service Improvement Review report (Attachment B) identified a number of transit routes in Abbotsford, which have on-time performance and reliability issues. Frequent late bus arrivals are causing significant disruption for both the riding customers and the transit operators.

In September, BC Transit made some cost-neutral changes to modify service on some routes to try and improve service. If my experience in November is any indication, but more work needs to be done. This was even noted by BC Transit.

The detailed review exposed significant reliability or on-time performance issues that are impacting the health and marketability of the transit system. The extensive analysis of the transit system also revealed that-given the resources that would be required to address reliability, congestion and community growth-many of the proposed service changes would require some level of service expansion and/or capital investment.

BC transit also said in the review that the Downtown Bus Exchange in Abbotsford would need to be expanded, as well as the bus garage, to support more transit service.

The transit system in Abbotsford is chronically underfunded. A modest increase in property tax would go a long way to improving service. Unlike Metro Vancouver where every penny comes from local citizens, Abbotsford is able to get free cash from the province to pay for improved transit service. Abbotsford Council should really look to Kelowna as an example of what investing in transit can do to improve a community’s transportation network.

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