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Funds earmarked for better rural transit

Inter-community transit fund creates new transportation options after Greyhound and STC strand rural passengers
Bus on road
Greyhound bus service stopped in Canada in 2018, leaving few affordable, and in many cases no, options in Western Canada for inter-community and interprovincial travel.

OTTAWA - A federal fund of $250 million is being seen as a first step in the creation of better transit services for everyone from rural communities and Indigenous people to farmers.

The loss of inter-community bus service, including Greyhound Canada’s decision to pull out of the prairie provinces and British Columbia in 2018, “has been devastating to many rural communities and it really hurts Canada’s economy,” said Joanne Vanderheyden, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

“If every community is going to thrive, rural transportation needs to be a national priority. Modern transit connects people and communities, supports economic growth and moves Canada closer to net zero (emissions) — all of that comes into play, and we can get that done with the right tools and the right funding.”

Communities have until Oct. 7 to apply for a planning and design grant of up to $50,000 under the Rural Transit Solutions Fund. It is the first federal fund of its kind in the country, said a statement by Infrastructure Canada.

“Proposed solutions could include a range of modes of eligible transport, including traditional solutions such as fixed-route buses as well as non-traditional solutions such as ride-share and on-demand services requiring the purchase of minivans, small craft, non-motorized and zero-emission fleets, shared fleets, the construction of intermodal hubs, the installation of charging stations, or the purchase of software.”

The fund will provide a total of $250 million for such projects over five years. It will include up to $3 million to cover capital costs, such as buying vehicles, as well as up to $5 million to support zero-emission transit initiatives.

“Merit criteria include depth of need, project scope, viability, community support for the project, support for vulnerable or equity-seeking groups, and potential social, environmental and economic impact.”

Potential applicants could range from municipalities to not-for profit organizations. At least 10 percent of the fund will be earmarked for Indigenous transit projects, said a separate statement from Infrastructure Canada.

“People living in rural, remote, Northern and Indigenous communities often depend on private vehicles for transportation, and more often than not lack access to transit options. Additionally, people without access to private vehicles or who are unable to drive are left isolated from essential services, or are unable to travel with ease among their communities or nearby communities.”

Exactly what rural transit will end up looking like is currently “a work in progress,” said Ray Orb, president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities. “The federal government is giving municipal organizations some leeway with this to try and create a kind of … framework of what they need.”

Rather than something on the scale of a Greyhound bus route involving passengers and freight, proposals likely will involve things such as local shuttle bus services that patrons including seniors or low-income people in rural and First Nation communities could use to get to a nearby town or city to visit a doctor or dentist, said Orb.

Work in progress

“There is a need for that because we don’t have very many rural hospitals anymore… but we haven’t really come up with a solution yet, so that’s why I said it’s a work in progress.”

Vanderheyden viewed the Rural Transit Solutions Fund as a first step in an ongoing process, likening it to the push to expand broadband internet access among rural Canadians. “If you can get those local pieces in place, you can make that puzzle bigger and bigger and get everyone connected.”

The FCM’s recommendations for candidates in the recent federal election included maintaining $3 billion in permanent annual capital funding for transit expansion starting in 2026-27.

“Canada’s transit plan should continue to support both urban and rural mobility needs, including the full range of expansion projects — subways, regional rail, light rail, bus rapid transit — alongside low-to-zero emission fleets, and on-demand and fixed route projects in rural areas.”

As chair of the rural forum of the FCM, Orb said municipal leaders from across Canada had lobbied “the federal government pretty hard to get some funding into rural transit for some time because a lot of the big cities are getting a lot of funding for transit, so we felt we have a need as well.”

He remembered a time decades ago when rural Canadians had access to everything from Greyhound buses to passenger trains. People in Saskatchewan were particularly hard hit by the provincial government’s decision to shut down the Saskatchewan Transportation Company in 2017, he said.

The loss of such options “would be a reason for some people to move out of the rural centres to try to get into an urban centre … so it’s going to be a deterrent to people who would like to stay in the small communities.”

It comes at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has boosted the trend of people working over the internet from home, sparking a move to smaller rural communities. Town officials in Trochu, Alta., used it as part of a recent marketing campaign to try to attract city residents.

Vanderheyden said the pandemic has underlined how services such as transit are failing to meet the needs of rural Canadians.

“Well, the impact is incredible. I mean, if I can’t get to my doctor’s appointment, that’s a problem. If I can’t get to my campus and go to school, how am I going to finish my education? Now COVID has really shown a lot of these gaps, and that’s why we need to move forward.”

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