GERTIE requesting funding increase, plans to cut service

The operator of GERTIE is appealing to the Regional District of Nanaimo board to increase its funding to help balance its budget following a year beleaguered with unexpected costs.

As part of its annual presentation to the RDN board on Jan. 10, the Gabriola Community Bus Foundation (GCBF) requested an increase of $30,000 to its 2023 funding plus an annual 2 per cent cost of living adjustment until the end of the current agreement in 2026.

GCBF says the increase will not cover all of its additional operating expenses budgeted for 2023. It’s also proposing a reduction of 1,000 service hours from current levels, a 24 per cent cut.

Ridership for 2022 was 80 per cent of 2019 levels for an average of between 300 and 350 passengers per week. “We have gradually worked our way back,” Steve Earle, GCBF board member, told the RDN board. In 2022, the bus foundation also transitioned its staff from contract to employee, adding to labour costs. “We need to adjust wages to keep up with inflation,” Earle added.

The bus foundation intends to spend 2023 working on a bus replacement strategy and route optimization as well as fundraising.

Currently GCBF is awaiting the results of a grant application to Industry Canada’s rural transit solutions fund to purchase two 20-passenger electric buses as well as charging infrastructure.

“One of the goals apart from reduced emissions is reduced costs and we would hope we could reinstate service that we have to cut and maybe go beyond and provide extra service that we have never provided,” Earle said.

Electoral Area B director and RDN board chair Vanessa Craig asked Earle if electric buses would reduce operating costs for the bus service.

“We anticipate that it would decrease our expenses significantly because fuel is a major expense,” Earle said; however, any “teething problems” early on are an unknown expense at this time.

The current RDN agreement, approved in 2021, delivers $142,948 plus a 2 per cent cost of living adjustment per year to GCBF. Back in 2016, Area B voters supported a referendum on establishing a transit contribution service with a maximum annual tax requisition of $250,000.

In December, Craig made the decision with the board’s support to allocate $30,000 in Area B Community Works Funds for capital costs related to bus repairs. Repair and maintenance costs were over $73,000 in 2022 while only $25,000 was budgeted, Earle updated the RDN board in January. Fuel costs were also $16,000 over budget. The bus foundation expects fuel costs to remain high this year and intends to increase its maintenance budget.

“I know you’ve been working hard to keep GERTIE running during the pandemic,” Craig said to Earle at the January board meeting, adding that GERTIE helps with emergency services. GERTIE provided free rides to warming centres for seniors during the December power outage.

Craig said GCBF’s request is part of the ongoing 2023 budget planning discussions.

Rachelle Stein-Wotten, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Gabriola Sounder