The wheels on the bus go round and round, all for around $570,000.
Facing high costs for school bussing, Haida Gwaii school trustees are once again speaking with village councils about a shared public bus service.
The idea got some traction last year, when the Village of Port Clements secured a B.C. grant for an islands-wide transit study.
But it seemed to hit a bump when some parents said they don’t want their kids going to school on a public bus.
Speaking at a Feb. 28 school board meeting, Trustee Elizabeth Condrotte said she remains “quite appalled” at how much the district now pays to FirstStudent, North America’s largest school bus company.
For its four regular bus routes, the district will pay the Ohio-based company $414,700 this year, plus another $70,000 to lease a bus in case of a tsunami evacuation in Masset and added fees for any extra student travel.
“It’s a huge cost to us, and no particular benefit comes back to Haida Gwaii as a result,” said Condrotte, adding that she would like to see public transit discussed at the district’s upcoming budget meetings.
“I for one would like to encourage a little deeper investigation into why or how many parents are really that concerned,” she said.
Condrotte made the comments after Lori Wiedeman, chief administrative officer for the Village of Queen Charlotte, spoke to the trustees about further consulting with parents.
“I’d like to explore a bit further with parents what their specific concerns are, and find out whether there are ways to mitigate those concerns,” said Wiedeman, noting that her own children rode public buses to school in Victoria.
“The overall benefits of having a public transportation system on Haida Gwaii would be significant I think, both from a resident and a visitor perspective, and I think there are ways to do it safely,” she said.
Based on stakeholder interviews and a survey of 245 islands residents, a study by the local Co+Host facilitators’ collective recommended that School District 50 forgo the public bus idea, although it did find that it would likely be the least costly option.
Instead, the study suggested the district could save costs by switching from FirstStudent to an on-island contractor such as O’Brien Road & Bridge or Eagle Transit.
O’Brien did provide school bussing on Haida Gwaii until 2004, when it was outbid by what was then FirstBus Canada, prompting O’Brien to sell its fleet of school buses.
The company says it is willing to look at buying a new fleet and making another bid — the school district’s existing contract comes up for renewal in June 2018.
Under such a contract, the buses would not be open to the public.
The Co+Host study notes that with its small resident population, large distances between communities, and high fuel costs, Haida Gwaii is a challenging place to offer public transit, and existing providers like Eagle Transit have responded by running flexible rather than fixed-schedule routes.
Nevertheless, the study looked at various options for short- and long-haul bus routes, and found that in most communities, survey respondents would be willing to pay $2 to $5 for a short trip (for example, between Skidegate and Queen Charlotte) and between $10 and $30 for a longer one between the north and south ends.
Besides hiring a local contractor for school bussing the study suggested looking at a short-haul routes pilot project, subsidies for taxi saver coupons, a regular evening water taxi to and from Sandspit, and better promotion of Northern Health’s weekday shuttle bus from Queen Charlotte to Masset and back that can be booked by non-medical travellers for an extra fee as space permits.
The report also noted that the Sandspit Community Society has already begun speaking with School District 50 about providing a student shuttle bus to and from the Alliford Bay ferry terminal.
To see the report, visit www.sd50bc.ca and look for “HG Transportation Study” under the minutes for the January 2017 school board meeting.