Council has agreed to include the funding for two vans in the 2021 budget, hoping to expand the current on-demand service to include Queenston and St. Davids.
Last year, the town partnered with the region on a pilot project for the service, which began in Niagara-on-the-Lake in late November. It replaced the town’s fixed-route transit system, which was cancelled due to poor ridership when COVID hit and the province imposed the first shut-down last spring.
Coun. Allan Bisback, chair of the audit and finance committee, explains approving the expense of the two extra vans in the budget ensures the money is there if needed.
The vehicles, he says, belong to the region, and the town contracts with the region to provide the service.
The budget includes about $235,000 to expand the service.
The cost, he added, doesn’t come from the tax levy — it’s funded by parking revenue.
“What we approved was a business case, to put money aside. I’d call it holding money, so it’s there to extend the service, subject to the success of the pilot project. And the region has said if we want that coverage, we need two more buses,” says Bisback.
A report from town staff mid-January confirmed no service changes or reductions were expected as a result of the recent provincial orders, and that the region continues to operate the on-demand vehicles following all recommended safety protocols.
During December, the first full month of operation, the service had a total of 166 riders.
A total of 32 users provided a trip-rating of their experience, with 96.8 per cent of users giving a five out of five rating, the report says.
During budget deliberations last week, councillors discussed whether the region would finance one vehicle if the town paid for the other, or if the town decided just one extra van was needed, would the region split the cost.
However, if the town is going to expand its coverage to Queenston and St. Davids, it will need two more vehicles, and the full complement of four would also allow for connections with other municipalities, which is part of the service the region offers, says operations manager Sheldon Randall. At the moment, the local on-demand service doesn’t leave NOTL.
He says although the town doesn’t have data to look at now, staff continually receives feedback from those using the system, and so far it’s been positive.
“For those using it, it’s a way better service for riders, getting them where they need to go.”
Council will continue to receive updates, says Randall, “but the program needs time to grow, before council can make an informed decision about whether this is of value to the community.”
The “number one marker,” he says, “is we don’t have an empty bus going up and down a road. When the bus is moving, it has a passenger, and for residents, it’s still the same cost.”
He also notes that once they have data, it will be based on numbers during a pandemic, when people are not using the service to go to work or school.