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Two years before Calgary Transit can bump up service: Fleming

The trouble isn't budget, it's hiring operators, Calgary Transit director says.

Calgary Transit is struggling to hire and train the 800 operators needed to bring the commuter service up to pre-pandemic levels.

It’s only once they get that covered can they plan for growth, councillors heard. That’s likely two years.

More information about Calgary Transit service levels came up during Thursday’s budget questions to administration.  During the week, dozens of citizens spoke about the need for better and more frequent service in Calgary.  Transit fares are slated to rise to $4 by 2026.

Transit director Sharon Fleming said that they’ve called back most of the operators laid off during the pandemic. They’re just dealing with filling spots lost through attrition.  

“We are hoping to have at least half (hired) by mid-year, and we do service changes quarterly, so you’ll see some of that service coming on ideally, we’ll get to 100 per cent by the end of 2023,” she said.

The issue isn’t resumes, however.  Fleming said they have a sufficient number of resumes in the pipeline.

“It is about triaging, interviewing, training, and a variety of other activities that go into recruiting, like examinations,” she said.

There’s also a shortage of exam times available, Fleming said.

It takes roughly 75 days from interview to behind the wheel, so there’s always a lead time to get drivers up to speed. It could be shorter if they already possess a Class 2 Alberta licence.

Coun. Jasmine Mian said it could be really hard for the public to hear that they have to get back to a baseline before pushing forward.

“I think (citizens) really want to see that increase in frequency. But it is challenging, because not everything is just a budget problem,” she said.

More on the struggle to hire Calgary Transit drivers from LiveWire Calgary in April

Two years and the Primary Transit Network

The Primary Transit Network (PTN), which was in the prior Route Ahead plan but never fully-funded or implemented, prescribes frequent, fast, reliable and connected public transit via bus routes and light rail transit.

It’s roughly 10-minute frequency, 15 hours a day, 7 days a week ideal, according to a map included in the Plan It Calgary documents.  It’s focused on a skeletal system rather than the current coverage-based system, which puts transit in far-flung neighbourhoods without ridership to warrant regular service.

Primary Transit Network by Darren Krause

During the public hearing, David Cooper, a former senior planner with Calgary Transit, outlined the importance of frequency to boost ridership. It would also improve equity and inclusion on the system, helping people who work or recreate outside the current peak transit operation hours.  Quite often those are women, young riders or people in Calgary’s immigrant communities, he said.

“This is not an idea or a concept that’s requiring additional funding. It’s something that can be put forward in your budget,” he said during the public hearing.

Fleming said it changes the game in terms of transit reliability.

“The ability to arrive at a stop and not plan your trip with a schedule is what makes transit work for people,” she said.

“They can make it more of a routine, part of their day, rather than having to plan ahead. And, the risk of a missed connection goes down dramatically when you know that there’s another bus coming within 10 minutes.”

By 2024, Fleming said they hope to add 45,000 hours to Calgary Transit service. Most of that would be geared to the Primary Transit Network, she said.

To fund the current LRT and Max BRT system to PTN levels, Fleming said they’d need another $53 million in operating cash and between $88 million and $110 million for vehicles.

To fund the entire PTN as designed, it would be $140 million operating dollars and up to $750 million in vehicles.

Safety a priority

Coun. Andre Chabot quizzed Fleming on added money for safety and security on transit.

There’s no additional cash included in the current budget to support transit safety, Fleming said. They did get a bump in July 2022.

“One of the best strategies in increasing safety on transit is actually ridership return,” she said.

There are six new peace officers that graduated recently and ready to be deployed on the transit system, councillors heard.

They have also budgeted for a review of a fare-gate study, Fleming said.

“We’ve finalized the scope and we actually have work ongoing on that and we should hear back next year,” she said.