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Innisfail moving into high-tech transit future

Council approves staff recommendation to have outside contractor deliver new state-of-the-art on-demand transit service
Children get set to board a Prairie Bus Lines' school bus. The longstanding Red Deer-based company has just secured an agreement with the Town of Innisfail to provide new advanced on-demand transit service. Photo courtesy of Prairie Bus Lines Ltd.

INNISFAIL – Citizens needing transportation in and outside of town will soon have new on-demand transit service managed by a long-standing and successful outside contractor that is using advanced technology to be more reliable and accessible.

On Jan. 23 Innisfail town council unanimously approved an administration recommendation to enter into a year-long contract beginning April 1 with Red Deer-based Prairie Bus Lines (PBL) to deliver Innisfailians state-of-the-art transit service for an annual cost to taxpayers of no more than $120,000.

The new price tag is about $30,000 more than what the Innisfail Royal Canadian Legion Branch #104 charged to manage local transit for Innisfail and area citizens.

Based on current ridership and the legion’s financial statements, the town is expecting to collect an estimated annual revenue of about $15,000; an amount that could increase as it goes forward with the new private on-demand system.

“I'm very pleased with this provider (PBL) and I think it's really going to add some benefits to the transit service,” said mayor Jean Barclay.

Late last year the legion notified the town it was terminating its transit agreement with the Town of Innisfail. Since then, administration has been reviewing options for future local transit service.

On Jan. 16, Jonathan Weal, director of business development for PBL, gave council an in-person presentation on his company’s on-demand transit service.

The high-tech service offered by PBL was introduced in Cochrane in 2019, the first time ever in Canada.

The service, which users can access by app or website portal, was expanded to Blackfalds, Okotoks and at least 10 other Alberta municipalities, including Edmonton and Calgary.

Weal told the Albertan that PBL will be delivering a service level to Innisfail that is similar to the current one.

However, he emphasized PBL’s on-demand brand is a game-changing “intelligent service” that is revolutionizing local transit across the province and in Ontario.

“It gets to learn the more that it's used and the more data it gathers, and the time it takes to get between different points,” said Weal. “It can anticipate delays on rides. It gathers a lot of data from the movement within the town to allow the service to be more efficient.”

Meghan Jenkins, the town’s director of community services, told council the agreement reached with the service provider calls for the town leasing its PACE vehicles to PBL for a nominal sum.

She said PBL will be responsible for drivers, dispatch/call centre, booking app, driver training, uniforms, phones and tablets, vehicle registration and insurance and basic cleaning and washing of vehicles.

The cost does not include fuel, repairs and maintenance.

The local rates for the on-demand transit service will remain the same but they could change as more data is collected through the new and advanced system.

One-way rides in Innisfail will cost $5. There will be a $25 charge for rides to Bowden and Penhold, and $50 for trips to Red Deer, Olds and Sylvan Lake. Citizens needing transit to Calgary will be charged $250.

“The service will be available to all residents of Innisfail, not just citizens with a handicap or a disability,” said Weal, noting rides on the on-demand system can be booked either by app, website portal or by calling the customer call centre.

Jenkins noted in her council presentation the current PACE transit service has largely been focused on seniors and citizens with mobility issues. However, she added the service is available to everyone and if there is increased promotion there could be greater usage.

“The vehicles primarily operate in town but are available for out-of-town appointments and residents,” said Jenkins. “The town has struggled with the consistent presence of a quality, available taxi service and a more accessible service may lessen this service gap.”

She told council the town may be able to bring back the recently terminated weekend service as service details are being ironed out with PBL. Council was told that adding five hours for Sunday service would cost about $14,000.

Coun. Don Harrison wanted to know if the new agreement will have clauses to ensure current transit staff will remain with the new transit system.

Weal told the Albertan he has not yet discussed the change with current staff but he plans to reach out to them. He also planned to meet with Jenkins last week to talk about staffing going forward.

In the meantime, the town and PBL are developing a comprehensive communications strategy for the public as it transitions to the new service.

 This will include newspaper advertising, social media, direct communications with seniors’ facilities and potentially an open house style event.