Free public transit for Barrie high school students fails to gain traction

Concern expressed by the health unit and public school board

Barrie high school students won’t get a free ride on public transit.

Councillor Mike McCann put forward a motion last month, endorsed by city council, that staff explore the feasibility of providing free transit to secondary school students until Dec. 31. At the time, MCann said he brought up the item because new COVID-19 regulations in place at secondary schools mean some students are done the day at 12:30 p.m. but must wait up to two hours for a school bus.

Free transit would only have been provided within one hour following the end of the school day at bus stops adjacent to secondary schools.

Staff reached out to the Simcoe County Student Transportation Consortium, (SCSTC), the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB), the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board (SMCDSB), the region’s French language school boards and the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU) for feedback.

In a staff report to City Council General Committee, the SCDSB and SCSTC indicated they are opposed to the motion if it encouraged students to depart prior to the end of the scheduled school day.

“However, they were encouraged that the City was continuing to explore opportunities and develop programs already in place between the City and SCSTC,” according to the staff report.

Buses typically drop students off at school about 15 to 20 minutes prior to the morning start time. They are picked up shortly after the end of the school day.

The staff report said there was concern Barrie Transit will have limited capacity to absorb even a small percentage of potential additional riders taking advantage of the proposed free transit during the 12:30 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. timeframe.

“Based on the fact many of these schools have 1,000+ students, there is the potential to put significant pressure on the already limited bus capacities and could negatively affect the current riders who depend on the service for essential travel to work, appointments, groceries, etc.”

Barrie Transit is operating on approximately 85% of its regular service. Based on guidance from the SMDHU, the transit system is operating with a capacity of 20 riders per vehicle or 40% of vehicle capacity.

With COVID-19 cases rising in Barrie, the County and across the province, and considering the region is in the second wave of the pandemic, the SMDHU said ” there are concerns with encouraging additional ridership.”

There was no feedback from the French language boards or the SMCDSB.