The town is spending up to $100,000 to determine ways to fix local transit.

Beforehand, the number of stops will be reduced to 129 from the current 149 in early 2024 with further evaluations and minor tweaks changes to help optimize the current system.

"This will include merging stops, further stop reductions and working with Ride.Co to increase our walk sheds of up to 400m," Michelle Delorme, Community Services manager, told town council on Dec. 11.

With Councillor Morgan Nagel as the lone objector, town council has agreed to hire a consultant and contractor to return with recommendations on how to reinvent Cochrane On-Demand Local Transit (COLT). The aim is to create a scalable business model that will function more effectively to meet current and future demand.

Introduced with a fanfare back in October 2019 as a cutting-edge system, COLT has struggled to meet demand while navigating the geographical realties of Cochrane and increased demand. It's also faced the challenge of functioning through a pandemic that set in shortly after it launch.

With the return to fuller social interaction and the town's rapidly growing population, it's now seeing its highest ridership yet. It's project to increase 50 per cent year-over-year by the end of 2024.

Ridership is projected to have climbed by 50 per cent in 2023 from 2022. It now typically provides 200 to 300 rides a day, with a record high of 469 on a day in August.

Despite this improvement, it's estimated there are 15 to 20 per cent in unmet trips. 

"This data underscores the critical need to address this growing demand, strategically ensuring the COLT transit system can meet the evolving needs of Cochrane residents," said Delorme.

Mayor Jeff Genung said council is fully aware upgrades are required and holds out hope that these will be identified by the consultant. He reminded council that this was pilot project to determine if there was a need for transit in the community.

"We heard that it did, and I would suggest by the numbers that we're seeing that the real is need and we have proven that we do require transit in Cochrane," said Genung. "Now, we have to upgrade it, we have to create a system that really parallels the needs in our community and the growth that we've seen in our community."

The consultant's recommendations aren't due until the third quarter of 2024 and expected to coincide with the 2025 budget preparations. That means at the earliest, COLT won't strike out in any new direction until 2025, and even then, would be subject to what council believes is affordable.

While curious about the financial implications of creating an effective transit system, Councillor Nagel opposed funding the study.

"I don't see any way to prioritize that expense over top of a number of other projects in our community, such as recreation, the Horse Creek Sports Park, additional ice surfaces and those type of things," said Nagel. "For me, even if I want the information, I think $100,000 is quite a bit to spend when I pretty much already know that I'm most likely not going to prioritize investing in the information in light of all the other priorities that we have in this town."

The funding piece of the puzzle is one of the areas that will be examined by the consultant. There have been several potential funding streams identified that could help ensure the sustainability of the service.

According to the 2024 budget draft, the town is spending an additional $152,587 on community connectivity, the largest component of which is COLT. Projected costs are $1,174,865, up from its 2023 budget of $1,022,278. The cost per capita has climbed to $29.11 from $25.94 per capita.

Councillor Patrick Wilson left the chambers during discussions, as he always has, due to a possible conflict of interest with his own business.

In response to Canada's Online News Act and Meta (Facebook and Instagram) removing access to local news from their platforms, CochraneNow encourages you to get your news directly from your trusted source by bookmarking this page and downloading the CochraneNow app.