A new bus is now taking people from the Municipal District of Spirit River into Grande Prairie on a much more regular basis. The MD bought the bus, and $200,000 from the provincial government will cover its operations three days a week for the next two years as a pilot project.

MD Chief Administrative Officer Kelly Hudson says the new bus has room for 16 passengers in seats and two in wheelchairs, which can be switched to 12 in seats and four wheelchairs. The service has been running since early December and hasn’t reached capacity yet, which means the bus driver still has time to pick people up from their home and help them to their door.

“That’s a service we can offer now,” says Hudson. “Once we get the bus full, if you have 16 passengers on the bus with competing interests, then it might be a little more challenging.”

A trip needs to be booked more than 24 hours in advance, and round-trip and one-way routes are possible. The new bus didn’t arrive until late December, hitting the road last week, so before that, the driver was using a pickup truck owned by the municipality to take smaller groups.

Previously, Central Peace Family and Community Support Services ran a bus to Grande Prairie once a month. It largely catered to seniors who needed to access specialized medical appointments, as well as people in wheelchairs without other forms of transportation.

The older bus has reached the end of its lifespan, and the MD agreed to take on the pilot project on its own. Hudson hopes to appeal to a wider audience.

“People would like to stay in their community and if a barrier to staying in your community is you can’t get to see the appointments that you need to be, that’s what we’re hoping to bridge with this pilot program. Also, there are recreational and social opportunities as well.”

It’s suggested that groups could book ahead of time to go to the movie theatre, bowling, or other activities only available in Grande Prairie.

Hudson also hopes to reach communities even further away. He says he’s suggesting their residents could use the bus as well if they’re able to drive themselves to a pickup point.

“If you could get to the Rycroft community then we can take you into Grande Prairie using our bus service and get you back. There’s a lot of seniors that feel comfortable driving at an older age but don’t feel comfortable driving in the City of Grande Prairie.”

After two years, Hudson hopes to have enough information to decide whether a rural transit system like this one works for the region. He also wants to be able to share the MD’s findings with other rural communities as a blueprint.

Outside of the pilot project, Hudson says he’s also in talks with the Town of Sexsmith to discuss a possible park and ride to connect to the County Connector, another rural transit program funded by the Government of Alberta that runs five days a week.