The wheels on free bus service for students come spinning off as stakeholders pan the idea

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It might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but after closer reflection it appears that offering Barrie high school students free rides aboard Barrie Transit is a notion whose time has not yet arrived – at least not as far as the district’s school boards are concerned.
Last month city council adopted a motion, originally put forward by Ward 10 councillor Mike McCann, to investigate the feasibility of providing free transit to students until Dec. 31, to help fill in COVID-19-related transit gaps of students finishing classes before school buses are available.
The idea was to provide free transit service from an hour following the end of school at bus stops adjacent to secondary schools. Staff in the Transit and Parking Strategy Department were also to look into the feasibility of a more permanent solution to free busing for students.
Staff reached out to the Simcoe County District School Board, the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board, the area’s French language school boards, and the Simcoe County Student Transportation Consortium (SCSTC), getting feedback from the consortium and the public school board.
According to a staff report, they weren’t particularly receptive to the plan.
“City staff reached out to the school boards to receive feedback regarding the initial motion. Feedback was received … indicating they would not be in support of the motion if it encouraged students to depart prior to the end of the scheduled school day,” reads the report.
“However, they were encouraged that the City was continuing to explore opportunities and develop upon programs already in place between the City and SCSTC.”
Staff, according to the report, will continue to investigate a longer-term solution to providing students with free transit, and report back to council in 2021.
Adjusting to COVID-19 realities, school boards in Ontario have adopted protocols to enhance distancing, which includes the SCSTC adjusting its “transportation services to accommodate the student’s transportation needs yet adhere to the required in-school time,” reads the report.
The school day typically runs from 8 a.m to 2 p.m., with buses dropping students off 15 to 20 minutes before classes begin, and picking them up shortly after the school day ends.
“Unlike other school board transportation consortia in other regions of the province, SCSTC have not observed any service level concerns or pressures during the high school transportation windows either before or after school,” reads the report.
Before boarding the bus in the morning, students are required to:
• Conduct daily self-assessments before going to their bus stops
• Practice physical distancing at bus stops
• Wear face coverings and follow assigned seating plans
The report also advises general committee that allowing students to ride for free would put additional pressure on Barrie Transit, which is operating at about 85 per cent of its pre-COVID-19 levels, due to distancing measures.
“Based on the fact that many of these schools have 1,000+ students, there is the potential to put significant pressure on the already limited bus capacities and could negatively affect the current riders who depend on the service for essential travel to work, appointments, groceries, etc.”
The health unit also raised concerns.
“While the SMDHU commends the spirit and goodwill of the motion in increasing ridership and providing benefit to students to encourage public transit as a mode of transportation, considering the region is firmly in the second wave of the pandemic there are concerns with encouraging additional ridership on the public transit system at this time.”