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City bus service granted provincial funding

John Towns
A map depicting the proposed route for the new Selkirk transit service. The route, which is estimated to take about an hour round trip, has about 75 stops, marked in red dots.

A map depicting the proposed route for the new Selkirk transit service. The route, which is estimated to take about an hour round trip, has about 75 stops, marked in red dots.

Selkirk residents will be climbing aboard a transit system in the city possibly as soon as January, after the provincial government formally approved funding for the service on Aug. 23.

City council has been waiting for months for the province to authorize the city's transit service under a provincial program offers a 50 per cent subsidy to offset the operating cost of bus services. Now that that approval has been granted, Coun. Duane Nicol - who has been spearheading the city's transit task force - says the city is finally in the closing stages of a more than six-year process to finally bring bus service to Selkirk.

"This is the first time I can really say confidently that transit is a go in town. I'm very excited - I don't want to say 'mission accomplished,' because we still have to get the busses going, but we're almost there," said Nicol, taking the opportunity to commend the hard work of city administration and transit task force members, as well as Selkirk MLA Greg Dewar.

"Literally, we were just waiting for this approval, and we've got it now, so this is very exciting."

According to council's transit plans, operating a bus service in Selkirk would cost approximately $245,000 per year - with a net cost of $180,000, half of which will be covered by the city and half of which will be covered by the province.

In addition to the operating subsidy, the province has also committed to an initial start-up investment in the service to the tune of $187,500, which Nicol estimates will offset the purchase of one of the two busses the city plans to buy at a cost of around $400,000.

The city's transit plans call for an investment of almost $600,000 to start up the service - $400,000 for busses, with most of the remaining funds would go to putting up bus stops and shelters.

The bus service plan, prepared by Canadian consulting firm iTrans, calls for a single bus route, which would wind its way through Selkirk over the course of about an hour. The plan also leaves the option open for Selkirk to put another bus on the road during busy hours.

The plan calls for the service to run from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday, and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday. It also calls for a unique agreement between the city and Handibus, which already operates in and around the Selkirk area.

The city would own the buses, but the actual operation of the service would be taken on by Selkirk & District Handibus. That arrangement is designed to keep operating costs down, as the Handibus drivers know the streets of Selkirk very well already, and would not require much training to step into a new role as transit drivers. Administration staff could also be shared between the two operations.

Now that all the pieces to bring a bus service to Selkirk are in place, Nicol says that it's just a matter of actually doing it.

"We had to wait until we had this commitment until we could tender for the buses and the bus stops - now that we have this, it's full steam ahead," said Nicol, adding that while the city was waiting for provincial approval they were able to draft all the necessary contracts to operate a bus service, so everything is ready to go. Nicol said he expects the city to start the tendering process for busses - which he says will likely be midway between the size of a shuttle-bus and the size of a 'City of Winnipeg' style transit bus - within the next week. Once the tendering process is completed, it's just a matter of waiting for the bus to be ready, he said.

"One of the biggest factors affecting how quickly we'll be able to get the service up and running is the bus itself," explained Nicol. "Because of the economic downturn, we're being told that it could take anywhere from four to six months before we get our bus.

"When you place an order, it's not like they have a parking lot full of busses ready to go, and you can't just add water and mix to make one."

Nicol said that in a best-case scenario, Selkirk residents could expect to see a bus service in the city by January, but admits that a more realistic projection is for February or March.

Then, Nicol said, it's just a matter of evaluating the service and seeing what areas need to be improved.

"We have a good, solid plan, but at this point it's still a best estimate. So we're going to be constantly evaluating where we can improve, and asking for public input on that to make sure the system is meeting people's needs," he said. "The whole intent here is to grow as we become more aware of our need. It's easier to start of small and then grow into the service, rather than start off big and have to pull service away.

"We want to make sure it's affordable, and it's the right service for us, so starting small and then growing if we need to is the responsible way to do that."

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