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K-Country public transit feasibility study gets green light

“It became quite apparent early on in our analysis and exploration into this that a recommendation was going to include a feasibility study,” said CAO Kieran Dowling in a Nov. 22 KID council meeting.

KANANASKIS COUNTRY – A public transit feasibility study in Kananaskis Country will get underway in 2023, though a transit pilot phase and permanent service implementation may still be further down the road.

Kananaskis Improvement District (KID) council previously called for a seasonal public transit pilot to potentially begin as early as spring of next year, but a recent report from administration painted a different picture.

“It became quite apparent early on in our analysis and exploration into this that a recommendation was going to include a feasibility study,” said CAO Kieran Dowling in a Nov. 22 council meeting.

Administration’s recommendation includes transit service implementation in 2024, after the study is complete, with more time to engage with residents and visitors as to what the service could look like and explore grant funding opportunities with provincial partners and the federal government.

While a pilot service could be operated in summer of 2023, according to the report, initial estimates combined with limited funding sources and opportunity to apply for grants, support advice to delay the project.

The other option, aside from scrapping the motion to explore public transit, would see a feasibility study and transit pilot rolled out with limited planning to cost recovery or project planning and administering of operations.

Although the province is reporting visitation in K-Country to be down this year, with about 3.4 million visits from January to September, visitor management challenges highlighted at peak visitation periods during the COVID-19 pandemic are still very much top of mind for both KID council and Alberta Parks.

Parks representatives present at the KID council meeting agreed with councillors that public transit seems an appropriate response to some of K-Country’s problems with parking and traffic, where public transit could enable better access to outdoor recreation while safeguarding natural environments.

“When we first looked at this, it was a desire to address a series of what I think are readily apparent issues,” said Coun. Darren Enns. “One being congestion around key visitor nodes such as trailheads.”

Other issues pointed out by council include connectivity for visitors within the broader Rocky Mountain tourism landscape as well as limited mobility for residents and the workforce in K-Country.

“At least since we asked for this [transit] report back in September, I don’t think any of these issues have abated,” said Enns. “And conversely, some have become even more evident such as the visitor surge we experienced during a warm fall larch season.”

In September, over 450,000 people visited K-Country, many in search of golden larches – coniferous trees found in subalpine areas of the Rocky Mountains. Larch season typically lasts into early October before the trees’ needles fall after turning brilliant shades of yellow.

On Highway 40, Ptarmigan Cirque’s relatively small trailhead parking lot saw massive lines of parked cars spill over onto the highway during one particularly busy weekend at the end of September. For more than one-and-a-half kilometres, cars lined both sides of the road, stretching to the south all the way to another popular trailhead parking area.

“We’ve seen everything from vehicles parking on the road because trailhead parking lots are full, to parking on top of vegetation in ditches and blocking emergency egress access,” said Alberta Parks Kananaskis West area manager Debbie Mucha.

“This flags the need to look at tools in the toolkit of how we’re going to manage this visitation into the future and these hotspot issues.”

Mucha described some of the work they have been doing to manage visitation as “band-aid solutions”, including bringing in third-party parking controls to ensure emergency access and building larger parking lots in areas such as Little Highwood and Elbow Pass day use area.

Now Parks is taking a closer look at other visitor management strategies in its toolbelt, including public transit, where they’ve expressed interest in working together with KID in a similar fashion as they have with the upcoming Town of Canmore’s Roam transit route to Grassi Lakes.

“A transit pilot is something that comes to mind as part of a suite of different options that we can look at,” said Mucha. “However, we haven’t looked at that in great detail other than through some preliminary work done by one of our previous planners in the region.”

That work looked at sites in the Elbow Valley that could be suitable for intercept parking and shuttle routes, and also got into the early phases of looking at Highway 40. But the focus was mainly on the Grassi Lakes corridor – the connection between Grassi Lakes, the Canmore Nordic Centre and Quarry Lake.

“For transport in Kananaskis, [the Alberta government] is definitely interested in partnerships and looking at that as a shared responsibility,” said Mucha.

“When I hear that KID council is very interested in pursuing transit, my ears perk up entirely and my response is ‘How can we help? How can we be involved? How can we collaborate?’ Because it’s something that’s been on our radar, and just due to resources over the past few years and not having enough bandwidth to proceed with this – it helps give us a bit of a push ahead to start looking at this in more detail.”

The KID transit feasibility study will look at better understanding operational service level models, frequency, ridership volume, expectation of bus size, accessibility options and features, departure and pickup locations, and integration with other regional transit services, such as Roam.

In creating its report, administration reviewed other regional and local transit models including Southland Transportation’s On-It regional service, Roam transit service in Canmore and Banff, Cochrane On-demand Local Transit (COLT) and Mînî Thnî Swift.

Many of the transit programs started with a feasibility study, followed by an operational funded pilot where limited-to-no capital investment was made in the first year or more.

There were multiple transit contractors who suggested operating two to four buses running a 10-hour schedule per day, allowing one to two hours out of service each way to the depot for a total operating service of 11 to 12 hours.

Three of the service level models considered in administration’s report included a seasonal schedule from June 17 to Sept. 9 (12 weeks) with one option being a Saturday and Sunday service; another a Friday, Saturday and Sunday service; and an everyday service.

Another model considered a shorter weekend-only service from July 1 to Aug. 27 (9 weeks).

Estimated costs per bus per hour ranged from $200 to $300, including operational costs such as drivers, route scheduling, fare collection, operational standards, customer service, bus maintenance and insurance, branding, and limited promotional support. Transit service marketing, signage, stop location identification, and permitting would require additional operating expenditures and are not included in the estimate.

Service options included routes originating at Kananaskis Village and the Bearspaw Kananaskis Travel Centre on Highway 40, with permission from Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation.

Suggestions from meetings with other transit service providers included stops at trails such as Barrier Lake, Nakiska Ski Resort, and other businesses en route along Highway 40, according to the report.

It was also recommended that transit service be offered to Calgary, with the city being the location of buses’ originating depot, maximizing ridership potential and fostering greater service viability.

Travel time from a route originating in Calgary with stops at the Bearspaw Kananaskis Travel Centre, Barrier Lake and ending at Kananaskis Village is about one hour and 40 minutes one way. Without a stop in Calgary, one-way travel time along the Highway 40 corridor is just 35 minutes.

Alberta Transportation traffic counters stationed at various roadway entrances to K-Country recorded peak visitation times this year from July to September with most people entering on Highway 40 from Highway 1.

Council’s motion for the feasibility study left location details open-ended, but in previous conversations councillors noted Highway 40 would likely be the focal point for public transit in K-Country as the busiest traffic corridor.

The study will cost about $20,000 to conduct and funds would be taken from either Canada Community-Building Fund grant monies or through Municipal Sustainability Initiative capital funding.

Council also directed administration to draft a letter to Alberta Transportation and Economic Corridors Minister Devin Dreeshen in support of mass regional transit from Calgary to the Rocky Mountains.

KID councillors took note of the minister’s mandate letter marching orders from Premier Danielle Smith, one of which tasks Dreeshen with exploring opportunities to work with the private sector and the City of Calgary on the construction of a passenger rail connecting the Calgary International Airport to Canmore and Banff.

KID councillors believe K-Country should also have a seat at the table in that conversation, and broader conversations about public transit in the Rockies.

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.