Rural Bus Service Needs To Be Supported

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Small town and rural residents in Alberta deserve the same treatment

Greyhound bus lines recently announced it would reduce or terminate bus service to small towns in Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario. It also stated that it was reviewing unprofitable bus services to small towns in Alberta. No one doubts that this move by Greyhound is a blatant political move to see if it can extract some subsidy dollars from assorted provincial and federal governments, but it has a good case.

Many years ago Greyhound cut a deal with provincial governments that it would maintain bus service to small towns in exchange for restricting competition on their profitable inter-city routes. That has worked well through internal company cross-subsidization, but increasing costs have made that practice unworkable and another way has to be found to maintain the service.

Costs are not insignificant. A high-tech commercial highway bus nowadays costs well in excess of half-a-million dollars. Fuel, maintenance and labour are a continuous cost. Greyhound has been able to juggle those costs between routes, but it is faced with severe competition from folks using their own cars and airlines desperate to fill planes between the main cities with give-away airfares. All of that works against any bus company.

One could be cold blooded and state that this situation is the result of supply and demand and let the marketplace rule. If people are not prepared to use the bus service, then let it die. That’s a realistic perspective, but we need to remember that citizens, and where they live, need to be treated equally. Just because you live in a small town or rural Alberta rather than in Calgary/Edmonton does not mean you should have different access to government services and subsidization thereof. Alberta citizens pay the same taxes, so they should receive the same benefits.

Big-city residents are able to use a public transit service that costs billions of taxpayer dollars to build and maintain. Most of that money comes from taxpayers from every part of Alberta. Folks living in the city feel that such lavish transit is their right and woe to any politician who dares question spending billions on city transit systems. It would never occur to any city transit user, nor our political representatives that city transit systems should actually pay their own way. Fares would have to increase tenfold to even come close to paying for the true capital investment and actual operating costs. But that won’t happen; politicians know where the votes are and they are not going to antagonize city voters with financial reality when it comes to transit.

Past governments knew all that and in the case of rural bus service there was an obvious resolution. Being the service was private, it was just a matter of giving the provider a bit of a monopoly in order to subsidize service to small towns. But times have changed.

The reality now is that with ever-increasing costs and competition on its main source of revenue Greyhound can no longer maintain money-losing services to small towns. It would seem that now governments also have to face that reality and should consider providing the same transit subsidy it provides to urban transit systems to rural and small-town bus service.

But there is an Alberta political reality against such a fair perspective. Rural voters have made themselves captives of the present government by their unwavering support of the party in power. Such blind support tends to foster contempt by politicians and bureaucrats and may well see the Alberta government dismiss any notion of rural transit support, no matter how justified.

There are other angles of course, one could also raise the green aspect to subsidizing bus service. After all more bus service should take more cars off the road. It also provides a social benefit – cheap and accessible bus service provides a service to low-income folks in cities and small towns.

From a more personal perspective the possible demise of bus service to small towns reminds one of the loss of railway passenger train service to small towns in the not-too-distant past. Governments allowed and even encouraged that to happen. That may have been a long-term mistake if the expanding passenger rail services in Europe are any example.

Bus service may well have to be considered a vital public service to areas of the province where there is no viable alternative. Our neighbours in Saskatchewan knew that many years ago. That’s why they have a publicly owned bus service (just like in the cities) to rural areas. Perhaps there is something to be learned from their experience.

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