Calgary Transit officials expect it will take two years to increase the frequency of buses and trains due to staffing challenges.
City Council heard during Day 4 of budget discussions that transportation is short 800 operators following pandemic layoffs and other attrition within the service.
“We’re hoping to have at least half (hired) by the middle of the year,” Calgary Transit director Sharon Fleming told reporters.
“We do service changes quarterly, so you’ll start to see some of that service arrive.”
The Council heard 253 operators have already been recruited this year, with the service increasing its training teams to get the new operators on the road.
Fleming said Calgary Transit plans to have the service operating at pre-pandemic levels by the end of next year.
Transit is currently running at 80 percent of 2019 service levels, the council heard.
Operating funding for transit in the budget is proposed to increase from $265.6 million to $286.5 million over the next four years.
“For this year, it’s about pushing forward on the recovery, then you’ll see the increase in service levels over the rest of the budget period,” Fleming said.
The budget also includes $559.4 million in capital funding to help purchase 25 new LRT cars, conduct life-cycle maintenance on the fleet and transit facilities, and transit network optimization.
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Fleming told the council that while the funding will help, the issues facing transit are not a budget issue and will take time.
“I think it’s very difficult for the public to hear. I think they really want to see that increased frequency,” said Ward 3 Councilor Jasmine Mian. “But it’s challenging because not everything is just a budget problem.”
Transit safety was also a topic of discussion during Thursday’s budget discussions, after video was released of an incident last week at the Marlborough LRT station in which a fight broke out that included weapons and a flare gun.
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One man is in custody following the incident, while Calgary police continue to search for the three other men involved.
Ward 10 councilor Andre Chabot said he found the video of the incident “disturbing” and added that he and a group of fellow councilors are exploring the possibility of restricting access at some LRT stations in the city through a ” closed system” to launch.
“If we had a closed system in some of these stations that could actually accommodate that, where you have limited access points, we could eliminate some of this kind of social behavior that occurs inside our transit stations,” Chabot told reporters.
Calgary Transit has confirmed that a study on the implementation of a closed system in the city is included in the funding in the proposed four-year budget.
“Safety and security is a big issue as far as trying to get more people back on the system,” Chabot said. “If people don’t feel safe, they’re not going to get on the system.”
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Safety on Calgary Transit has been a growing concern during the pandemic, with police warning the public about a series of alleged sexual assaults at Dalhousie station in recent weeks, including one that allegedly involved a woman in a bus shelter.
Calgary Transit riders who spoke to Global News on Thursday said they often worry about safety while using the service.
“When I walk by, I always look,” Amy Tam said. “When someone approaches me, I just retreat.”
The University of Calgary’s Students’ Union said it has heard from students who don’t feel safe riding the train, and wants to see students involved in discussions about safety on the system.
“Post-secondary students pay for a UPass every semester, regardless of whether they use transportation day-to-day or not,” student union president Nicole Schmidt told Global News. “So as a result, we’re asking that post-secondary students be involved with Calgary Transit and the City of Calgary when it comes to solutions to improve transportation safety.”
Calgary Transit officials said $5.9 million in funding from the city is currently being used to hire more transit peace officers to increase a security presence on the system.
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Officials told the board that six peace officers will graduate this week, with 14 more later this month. Fourteen more will complete their training in early 2023.
However, Ward 8 Councilwoman Courtney Walcott said transit riders would be better served if the council acted on systemic issues by funding social programming.
“We can make this decision and make this mistake today by just saying we’re going to require more security,” Walcott said. “But that’s not going to stop people from needing support. It’s not going to stop people from being in these situations.”
Mayor Jyoti Gondek said the city is still waiting for provincial funding to help improve transit safety that was announced in October.
‘To be honest, it was a different government. We have a new government that is making all kinds of commitments to our city and we hope we can quickly access some of those funds,” Gondek said.
However, Fleming told the council that transit safety would be improved by increased ridership.
“One of the best strategies to increase safety on transit is actually ridership,” Fleming said. “Now we have to find ways for people to come back more, and that reliable regular service is what it will take.”
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