Nanaimo wants to quintuple the number of public transit riders over the next 20 years, but in order to do that, the city will need bus stop benches and shelters in all the right places.
At a governance and priorities committee meeting Monday, Nov. 22, city councillors debated renewing contracts with private companies that provide Nanaimo’s bus shelters and benches or abandoning the private enterprise model in favour of city-owned-and-maintained amenities.
The city partners with the Regional District of Nanaimo on public transit, with the city acting as road authority and on-street facilities provider.
Nanaimo currently has 39 shelters and 300 benches at bus stops. Most are owned by private contractors, which make money selling advertising space with the city netting a portion of the revenue – about $72,000 annually – to help offset public transit costs.
The contractors’ main interest is to maximize revenue from each shelter and provide advertisers with the best exposure, so it installs shelters in the highest-traffic locations, leaving secondary streets on bus routes with benches open to the elements or nothing at all.
The city has worked with the RDN and B.C. Transit since 2013 to add 10 shelters at locations where there was identified need.
“We’ve got a fairly lengthy history of using third-party shelters in our system and we’ve had an ongoing rollover of contracts,” said Jamie Rose, city transportation manager, at the meeting. “Unfortunately, those contracts have been fairly short and have left us with assets that are upwards of 30 years old … We’ve also got a fairly limited ability under the current contract to locate shelters where we need them to best support our transit users.”
Rose went on to say the city also doesn’t have “quite as much depth of service in the contract” needed for the operation and maintenance of the shelters.
Staff presented the committee with three options to deal with Nanaimo’s future bus stop needs – a long-term contract, a short-term contract, or a short-term contract during a transition to a city- and region-owned network of bus stop amenities.
The first option, to issue a request for proposals from private contractors to provide bus stop amenities under a 25-year contract, would offer the greatest financial benefit to the city for the least financial commitment, but would lock the city into a long contract term, noted a staff report.
Option 2 would still provide revenue to offset transit costs, but staff reported that shorter contracts are not as lucrative for contractors which could be faced with more frequent infrastructure renewal and maintenance costs.
The third option, a transition to publicly owned, controlled and maintained infrastructure, would involve replacing 39 shelters and 300 benches at an estimated cost of $2 million, as well as the costs of administering and maintaining the amenities.
Rose said staff have to begin crafting a new contract as early as possible in the new year and if the existing contract lapses, it’s possible the contractors could opt to remove amenities.
“The big question is what happens with the existing hardware that’s out there,” Rose said. “It could be removed very quickly.”
Councillors Ian Thorpe and Sheryl Armstrong said they prefer Option 1 for its cost advantages and the chance it will attract competition for the new contract. Coun. Don Bonner expressed his preference for Option 2 as it offers a chance to transition to other models and to look for local builders that might supply bus shelters at a lower cost to a city- and RDN-owned system.
Councillors Tyler Brown and Ben Geselbracht expressed their preferences to switch from a private contractor to a city and regional district-owned system focused on driving public transit ridership.
Brown made a motion to recommend that the city to engage with RDN Transit and B.C. Transit on the topic of developing a “long-term transit shelter deployment plan,” and Armstrong suggested an amendment to add a time frame to ensure councillors receive a staff report on the discussions by Jan. 30.
The committee voted 7-2 in favour of the recommendation, with Thorpe and Coun. Jim Turley opposed.