By Collin Gallant
Southern Alberta Newspapers
The Highway 3 Connector bus route between Medicine Hat and Lethbridge was wound down at the end of last month and likely won’t be revived without new financial support from the province, City of Medicine Hat officials say.
The twice-daily bus route, operated by Southland Transportation, was a pilot project announced in 2018 by then premier Rachel Notley, as part of a rural transportation strategy.
The province provided $415,000 to cover costs, about $21,000 per month in operation, while ridership numbers were studied. The government hoped to explore the viability of public transportation to fill gaps, as companies like Greyhound cut out Western Canadian routes.
City manager of Community Development Leah Prestayko, whose department includes city transit and oversaw the pilot, said public transportation is typically subsidized to a high degree and the numbers from the pilot would be a tough sell to private industry.
“We’re disappointed it didn’t take off, because we had hoped it would be another option for rural riders,” she told Southern Alberta Newspapers.
The route allowed riders to book rides and get on or off at 11 locations along Highway 3, including Redcliff, the Hat, Seven Persons, Bow Island, Taber, Coaldale and Lethbridge.
Ridership peaked at about 160 fare-paying riders in the month of February 2020, but had been firm in the months leading up.
After that point however, ridership plummeted as the pandemic set in, the service was suspended for June and July 2020, then extended two months into 2021, said Prestayko.
Ridership did not recover though, with only 48 bookings registered in the final month.
Prestayko says there was little cost to the City of Medicine Hat, which lent some administrative support and oversight, and charged some expense back to the grant.
Tyler Glasgo, the local manager of contract provider Southland, said the route would be an overall money-loser without the grant.
Fares on most days, he said, wouldn’t cover driver wages, let alone overhead and other operating costs.
Three readers contacted Southern Alberta Newspapers last month complaining the service hadn’t been more heavily promoted, especially by doctors who booked out-of-town specialist appointments in either Medicine Hat or Lethbridge.
Prestayko said the program was originally slated to end Dec. 31, 2020, but continued to February to make up for two months it was offline in the summer.
The city has until June to submit its findings to Alberta Transportation for analysis.
A spokesperson from Alberta Transportation told Southern Alberta Newspapers the entire program, including routes in Grande Prairie, Camrose and Red Deer, would expire as planned in March. An evaluation would be done at that time.
Prestayko says it’s hard to draw any final conclusions about the connector service, considering it was still growing when COVID-19 hit, which essentially cancelled most travel for months on-end last year.
“However, there is a level of investment required (from government), and as a revenue generator, I can’t see private companies taking that on,” she said.