The announcement this week that another Guelph Transit general manager is leaving has some wondering where that leaves transit planning in this city.
One thing everyone seems to agree on is hiring a stable GM for Transit who will oversee the changes that need to be made for years to come.
The city announced this week that Mike Spicer, GM of Guelph Transit for the last 14 months, has accepted a similar position with Halifax Transit starting next month.
Spicer was the third Transit GM to leave in the last five years, and his eventual replacement will be the fifth in 10 years.
In a post to his Facebook page earlier this week, Ward 3 councillor Phil Allt said the loss of Spicer is a problem and that the city has lost too many managers.
“What is really needed is money and a City Council willing to understand and a council willing to understand that Transit is a public service worth funding that has significant economic, social and environmental value,” said Allt in the post.
He added, “Until we have a comprehensive system — and we need a manager who will stay to implement that — we’re not back to the future, we’re back to the Stone Age.”
Reached by phone on Tuesday, Allt said he stands by his Facebook comments.
Allt said he thinks Spicer was the right person for the job.
“He was prepared to take on a tough job and make some tough decisions that were’t always popular but I think in the long term would have been profitable for the city,” said Allt.
Losing Spicer just as the city is preparing to do a service review of Guelph Transit is setting the process back, said Allt.
“I think some of the problems that we caused by essentially going one step backwards to go one step forwards are likely going to remain in place a bit longer because we don’t have somebody who is overseeing the reforms that we need to put in place — including examining our funding of the system — so that we have a comprehensive system that is viable throughout the city and doesn’t leave the ridership frustrated all of the time That’s what we are experiencing,” said Allt.
Steve Petric, who sits on City Council's committee on Transit, said he would like to see the upcoming service review of Guelph Transit put on ice until a new GM is put in place.
“I think we really need to find someone who is going to commit to five or 10 years here, that will help to grow the system. That’s why I feel the service review should be slowed right down until we find that person, even if that means holding it until next year after the election,” said Petric.
Mayor Cam Guthrie disagrees with slowing down or stopping the service review, which is currently in the early planning stages.
“The working group has already met. They are already working on the service review. Not having a comprehensive service review to give us the guidebook of what we need to do to both fix and expand Transit — not having that is exactly why we are in this position that we have been in in this city for too long. That would be a complete disservice to the riders and I would not support that,” said Guthrie.
It is important, said Guthrie, to find the right GM to implement the recommendations that will eventually come out of the service review.
“I have trust in the fact the buses will still be running and the service review will still be happening. Council and staff all care deeply about making sure we are doing the best for the riders. Whether we have a manager or not at this time. But the reality is we have to get the right person. If that takes time, then so be it,” said Guthrie.
Andrew Cleary, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1189, said he was looking forward to continuing to work with Spicer and notes there are still a few loose ends that need to be tied up after the recent renewal of the labour contract with the city.
“To go through another general manager, to try and rebuild another relationship — I have gone through nine or 10, I think, in my career with transit,” said Cleary.
“As far as the service, we’ll put the service on the road, no matter who is at the helm,” said Cleary.
The public’s frustration with Guelph Transit has been spurring discussion online about looking into a private regional mode or merging with Grand River Transit (GRT), which operates transit routes in Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge.
The recent pulling of bus stop signage, and the eventual replacement of printed schedules at every stop, was the last straw for many riders, said Petric.
The city needs consistency and stability in a Guelph Transit GM, he said.
“This revolving door of general managers is not getting us anywhere. It’s no wonder there is a big discussion online about merging with GRT because I think people are just tired of this. We’re making small steps here and there, but no real gains like GRT has done,” said Petric.
Guthrie said he has been in favour of looking at opportunities for regional transit for some time and that the service review will explore those options.
“It is going to be investigating those very things, which is why we should not look to delay the service review,” said Guthrie.
In November, Guthrie said privatizing city services, including Guelph Transit, has to be considered.
Neither Allt or Petric are in favour of a possible privatization of public transit.
“You’re looking at a company that wants to make money, so of course you are going to get the lowest service available. We would probably see less than we get now. I have not seen one private company make money without service cuts or fares way up in the four dollar range,” said Petric.
Allt points to Brampton Transit and GRT as models of public transportation that are servicing the needs of the people who use it.
“The vision was there. That’s where I think it comes back to council — we need to have the vision. We need to be both visionaries and we need to open up the pocketbook because we can’t do it without cash,” said Allt.
The Mayor said he takes issue with the idea of solving the city’s transit woes with money alone.
“This is why the service review is so dearly needed — throwing money at issues does not fix anything. Making decisions based on emotion does not fix anything. Those are the things that got us into the situation we are in today. We need to be able to justify to the riders and to the taxpayers when we spend their money on such an important system like transit,” said Guthrie.
Stability is important in senior management positions for a city like Guelph, said Guthrie.
“The issue is, do you rush to put in anybody who puts up their hand or do you find the right person? Frankly, the answer should be to find the right person and if that takes a while, so be it,” said Guthrie.
To fill the vacant GM position, Allt would like to see someone who has been involved in the redevelopment of a transit system in another municipality.
Transit can work for a lot of people and we need to begin to address the issue the it’s not just for the people who cannot afford a car, not just for students and seniors and not just for the working poor. It’s a system that should be working for everyone just like it does in places like Europe and New York City,” said Allt.