There’s a new way for people to get between Grande Prairie, Clairmont, and Sexsmith. The County Connector is now up and running as the first phase of a public transportation pilot project to link the three communities.

The bus has been rolling since December 5th, operated by the city. County of Grande Prairie Reeve Leanne Beaupre says the initial feedback to City Transit Manager Steve Harvard has been positive.

“He was saying he’s already had a couple of suggestions, which is great; that’s what we want to hear from the people that are riding our buses: see how it’s working, what’s not working for them, what we can change.”

Minister of Transportation Brian Mason at the launch of the County Connector, Erica Fisher

The two-year pilot was made possible by a nearly $640,000 provincial grant announced in June, as well as another $277,000 in GreenTRIP funding to cover the cost of the first bus. The second one will be bought by the County at a cost of $138,333.

Minister of Transportation Brian Mason was at the official launch of the service Monday morning. He says it’s likely the bus could become a permanent fixture if well-used.

“We want to see how many people use it,” he explains. “As far as our government is concerned, this so far looks like a real success. It’s been well-received in places like Red Deer, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Camrose, so I think… this would be something we’d continue to fund.”

Once the second bus arrives, phase two will be launched. That will serve Beaverlodge, Wembley, and Hythe. Beaverlodge mayor Gary Rycroft stresses the importance of having a rural transit system, especially for disabled people and seniors.

“The pioneers of this country, a lot of people who’ve put a lot of time into serving our needs are now losing their ability to get around. This will give some of the dignity back to those people who have carried themselves with dignity their entire lives.”

Clairmont Community School students welcome Transportation Minister Brian Mason for the launch of the County Connector, Erica Fisher

“Rural areas have less population and much longer distances,” adds Mason, “so it’s more challenging for them to provide transportation for people than in a city where you know you can take a bus and the bus will have 50 people on it or you can walk.”

The County Connector has seats for 25 people and two spaces for wheelchair users. It runs Monday to Friday, with the first trip leaving Grande Prairie at 6:40 a.m. and the last ending at 7:25 p.m. The pilot project funding does not cover weekends or statutory holidays, but Beaupre says service could be tweaked in the future.

“We’ve set up an advisory committee so that we can basically take a look at some of the routes and make sure that they’re satisfactory to what our needs and our users are.”

The cost for a one-way trip is $5 paid using coins or a reloadable smart card, while children 11 years and younger are free. It’s expected the second phase will get rolling in February 2019.