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Three Orillia councillors see Orillia Transit struggles first-hand

By Patrick Bales, The Orillia Packet & Times

PATRICK BALES/THE PACKET & TIMES
Coun. Mason Ainsworth speaks with two Orillia Transit riders on the West Ridge route heading toward Lakehead University Wednesday morning.

PATRICK BALES/THE PACKET & TIMES Coun. Mason Ainsworth speaks with two Orillia Transit riders on the West Ridge route heading toward Lakehead University Wednesday morning.

Wednesday morning, two of the nine members of Orillia city council took their first rides on Orillia Transit.

Ever.

In a lot of ways, it went as smoothly as regular transit riders would have expected it to.

Couns. Rob Kloostra and Sarah Valiquette-Thompson, the rookie riders, were joined by Coun. Mason Ainsworth on a tour of the city via two of the five bus routes in operation. A fourth member of the working group struck last year, Coun. Ted Emond, was unable to join due to a previous city commitment.

The collective met at Brian Orser Arena at 10 a.m., soon joined by Wesley Cyr, manager of engineering and transportation. This was ample time to make the 10:30 a.m. bus set to pass right in front of the arena, which would be chariot for the three councillors, Valiquette-Thompson's 16-month-old daughter Hailey-Jane and Cyr as they began their journey.

But Ainsworth had another idea. To really get the feel for what many Orillia Transit users experience, especially on a cold winter morning such as Wednesday, Ainsworth had the crew walk from the arena, passing by four other bus stops, to the corner of Gill Street and Atherley Road, near the Giant Tiger, where they would pick up the bus.

Now time was an issue. They traipsed through the snow all the way to the intersection, only to find themselves between stops when the bus drove past.

"This is a really good learning experience for everyone," Ainsworth said, clearly having not planned such an inconvenience, but attempting to make the best of a bad situation.

The councillors and Cyr picked up the next South route bus at about 10:50 a.m., in between Queen and Gill streets, across from the Country Style Donuts. Roy Thompson, a daily user of the bus, was there waiting for his next ride.

Usually, he finds himself heading downtown or to the mall by bus. Overall, he's a happy customer.

"It's good, but the way they keep the bus stops are a little unreal," he said. "They never clean them out."

That's a complaint council and staff have heard often this winter. The influx of snow in the region has made an already sub-standard removal policy - where only 25 of the city's bus stops and transit shelters are maintained during the winter - a more glaring issue, with a spike in complaints from residents. It's something the three councillors experienced first-hand Wednesday, particularly Valiquette-Thompson, who was transporting her daughter in a stroller throughout the entire nearly four-hour trip.

"The boarding is awful," she said. "That's tough."

"Imagine if you were by yourself," Kloostra opined.

"You couldn't do it," she replied.

The councillors had the chance to interact with about 100 people during their journey, taking four different buses on the return trip from Orser to the western portion of the city. Along the way, they handed out brochures with an update from the Orillia Transit rider working group, which allowed for riders to provide comments on the system, that could be handed in either to the councillors or the bus driver at a later date.

It's one thing for councillors to read those concerns; it's another to actually experience them first-hand.

"My idea for this whole experience is primarily to get other members of city council to step foot on a bus," Ainsworth said. "To ride the bus, to get off and transfer, to wait out in the cold... and actually experience real life."

The issue is somewhat personal for Ainsworth, who regularly utilized Orillia Transit when he was a student at Lakehead University. His push for greater transit funding has often fallen on deaf ears around the council table, most recently during the 2017 budget deliberations when he pushed for the inclusion of funds for a sixth route.

Both Kloostra and Valiquette-Thompson saw the need for finding the money for such a route in the 2018 budget during their travels Wednesday.

That route would help with the timing issues currently faced on the West Ridge route, which serves Lakehead and areas across Highway 11. When the councillors arrived at the downtown terminal at just before 11:15 a.m., they should have been met by the West Ridge bus. However, all of the other routes meeting at downtown had left by the time West Ridge finally arrived.

It wouldn't be economical, nor efficient, to hold every bus downtown until all routes have arrived, Cyr said, despite how inconvenienced people can be by missing their transfers when one route - particularly West Ridge - is late.

"(The buses) have been trying to accommodate our transfer passengers, and we've been doing our best, but the routes are just a little long at this point," said Cyr, who has been in his managerial role for less than a year. "We've got some solutions coming up in the next couple of weeks that we want to run through council, that will tighten the efficiencies - shorten (the routes) a little bit - so that they're more on time."

One big idea that is being pitched - at least until a sixth route is funded - is to split the West Ridge route into A and B loops. Currently, each bus serves both Walmart and Lakehead; the proposal from Cyr would see Walmart's service halved, while keeping every bus on the line heading to the university.

The councillors made it to Lakehead at 11:40, about 10 minutes later than they should have. Still, the councillors thought making the next bus would be no issue at all, and decided to make a quick pit stop for lunch at the Monarch Drive Tim Hortons.

At about 12:15 p.m., they looked up to see their return trip speed by. The bus that had been delayed on the previous run was ahead of schedule through its current one.

"It has its challenges for being on time," Kloostra said of the transit system. "It gets you where you have to go, but you can see the challenge for people when they have to be at work for 12 o'clock, they have to leave at like 10. Especially if you live in downtown and have a job in west ridge."

The delay was enough to force Kloostra from the rest of the trip. He had a previous commitment in Barrie set for 2 p.m. and getting back to Brian Orser at 1:35 p.m. wasn't going to allow that to occur. He was able to secure another ride. That's not a luxury many transit riders can afford.

For Debbie Gault, the bus is her only way to get into downtown or to the shopping in the west end. She has travelled all the city's routes, except for the one that services Georgian College, rating the South route the worst, for its length and lack of speed. Better service and better shelters are high on her list of ways to improve her transit experience.

Gault, a senior, spends $47 on the monthly pass she uses to get around town.

Is it worth it? She paused ever so slightly before answering.

"Not really."

pbales@postmedia.com

twitter.com/patrickbales



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