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'Keeping us on the road': Halifax increases its funding for rural transit for first time in 10 years

Jessie Greenough is executive director of MusGo Rider. The group runs two services out of its office in Porters Lake, serving residents around East Preston, the Eastern Shore and the Musquodoboit Valley. (CBC - image credit)
Jessie Greenough is executive director of MusGo Rider. The group runs two services out of its office in Porters Lake, serving residents around East Preston, the Eastern Shore and the Musquodoboit Valley. (CBC - image credit)

Halifax rural transit groups are getting a municipal funding boost for the first time in 10 years, drawing applause from many who say the services offer a lifeline to those who don't — or can't — drive.

Elizabeth Beaver of Murphy Cove, N.S., on the Eastern Shore said she regularly relies on MusGo Rider for medical appointments and grocery trips. As a low-income senior, she's eligible for a reduced fare, which Beaver said makes a real difference.

"Without this, I'd be lost," Beaver said during a recent trip when she stopped into MusGo Rider office in Porters Lake.

Last Tuesday, Halifax council increased funding for the four non-profit organizations that provide accessible, door-to-door service for people outside the transit boundary for the first time since it began in 2014.

"I'm pleased to see this ... our rural transit service has been, well I think, a huge success since we introduced it," said Coun. David Hendsbee during the meeting.

MusGo Rider runs two services along the Eastern Shore and Musquodoboit Valley. There is also Bay Rides in St. Margarets Bay, and the East Hants Community Rider.

A Bay Rides rural transit van. The Halifax group serves the St. Margarets Bay area with door to door service for people without a car.
A Bay Rides rural transit van. The Halifax group serves the St. Margarets Bay area with door to door service for people without a car.

A Bay Rides rural transit van. The group serves the St. Margarets Bay area with door-to-door service for people without a car. (Bay Rides)

The flat-rate funding for transport services is rising from 50 cents a kilometre to 64 cents a kilometre to match average inflation, according to a staff report. Annual lump-sum payments are going from $5,000 or $10,000, depending on the level of service, to $6,381 and $12,763.

The city will also increase funding each year, based on the five-year average for inflation.

Jessie Greenough, executive director with MusGo Rider, said the boost means they can expand their services and offer more rides without raising fares. They operate about 15,000 trips a year between both services.

"We are fully booked. People are now calling like two weeks ahead of time and we can't fit them in, so there's a real need to expand," Greenough said.

Besides seniors, he said rural transit groups regularly drive people to work, the food bank, or help those with intellectual or physical disabilities get around.

Volunteers load a Bay Rides van full of bags from the food bank for residents around St. Margaret's Bay during Christmas 2023. The rural transit group provides free delivery for food bank orders to those without reliable transportation.
Volunteers load a Bay Rides van full of bags from the food bank for residents around St. Margaret's Bay during Christmas 2023. The rural transit group provides free delivery for food bank orders to those without reliable transportation.

Volunteers load a Bay Rides van full of bags from the food bank for residents around St. Margarets Bay during Christmas 2023. The rural transit group provides free delivery for food bank orders to those without reliable transportation. (Bay Rides)

It's always a delicate balance to stay sustainable, Greenough said, and there have been times they've had to cut the number of vans on the road to save funds.

Bay Rides first brought the need for more funding to Halifax's transportation committee in November.

"It's really just keeping us on the road," said Megan Harris, volunteer and board member.

Bay Rides has told the municipality they will likely face a deficit at the end of the year, and have struggled to keep up with rising fuel costs, which eat up 60 per cent of their vehicle funds.

Harris also said the number of low-income people tapping into the fare assistance program, which offers reduced rates, has risen 200 per cent, ranging between 50 to 100 trips a month. Bay Rides sees about 7,600 trips a year, Harris said.

"So it's not insignificant for an organization our size, and in the St. Margarets Bay area as well," Harris said.

A new Tesla sits in the MusGo Rider's head office in Porters Lake. The rural transit group got the vehicle through a federal funding program.
A new Tesla sits in the MusGo Rider's head office in Porters Lake. The rural transit group got the vehicle through a federal funding program.

A new Tesla sits in the MusGo Rider's head office in Porters Lake. The rural transit group got the vehicle through a federal funding program. (CBC)

Both groups now hope the provincial government will raise its funding for rural transit groups across the province, which also has not changed in years.

Bay Rides and MusGo have invested in greener options through the federal rural transit funding program to help their bottom lines.

That includes a new heated garage at the MusGo Rider's office in Porters Lake, where they can keep their two electric vehicles. Greenough said they have had an Arrow for a few years, and a new Tesla came from federal funding, as did two hybrid accessible vans — bringing their fleet to 10.

Harris said Bay Rides was awarded three hybrid vehicles through the same federal stream, bringing their total to eight.

Greenough said she hopes there's more awareness about how vital rural transit is to help residents age in place and live healthy lives, saving health-care dollars in the long run.

"You know, we're innovators here," Greenough said about the province's network of more than 20 rural transit groups.

"The other ones are, I think, looking at Nova Scotia as a model."

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