Westlock County will study the area’s transportation needs if a federal grant comes through.
County councillors voted Jan. 23 to direct staff to submit a grant application to the Rural Transit Solutions Fund for the study and to contribute $5,000 of reserve funds to support the study if approved.
The $250-million fund lets municipalities apply for grants of up to $50,000 to plan and/or design transit solutions and up to $3 million to assist with up to 80 per cent of the capital costs for a new or expanded transit system - $5 million for a zero-emission system.
The grant would let the county hire a transportation consultant, who would identify any unmet transportation needs and could include recommendations for the type of service, frequency and a costing model for a transit system, according to a report from county staff.
After the study was finished, council would then have to decide whether to apply for more funding to build a system.
Chief Administrative Officer Tony Kulbisky said transit has been brought up at meetings between the county, the Town of Westlock and the Village of Clyde. Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) has also identified concerns from older residents in rural areas who cannot drive to medical and other appointments in regional centres, as well as getting under-employed non-drivers from small communities to jobs in those centres.
Coun. Jared Stitsen said it would be well worth looking into.
“I think the need is out there, people are asking and it’s getting harder and harder for people to retire in their communities,” he said.
Coun. Isaac Skuban agreed, adding there should be a focus on hamlets where the need is greatest.
“I’m torn on this,” Coun. Stuart Fox-Robinson said, noting the grant funding was also taxpayer dollars and that 20 per cent of the capital costs and all of the operating costs would still need to be borne by the county if a grant to build a system was successful.
Coun. Sherri Provencal agreed with Fox-Robinson, adding that bus operators, maintenance and fuel were all expensive.
Fox-Robinson also said he wouldn’t support a program that bussed county residents outside the county to shop.
Stitsen noted that FCSS had previously discussed purchasing a bus and could administer a rural transit program since it falls within their mandate.
Reeve Christine Wiese noted that the assessment would likely demonstrate where the need is, but agreed that the county should not be involved in long-term operation and should partner with other organizations. She added that the study could reveal a potential economic development opportunity for a local private company to fill transportation needs.
Kulbisky said staff could ensure the study’s terms of reference highlight the county wants partners in a system rather than being an operator. “By no means are we looking at this to set up our own county busing service or Uber service.”
Fox-Robinson’s motion to apply for the study grant “for providing essential services in the community” passed unanimously.