The township’s administration had recommended a suspension of services during 2021, due to lower demand during the pandemic, before a gradual return in 2022. But, in a three-two decision, councillors voted to instead cancel the contract for the service with 417 Bus Line.
Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown in March, buses regularly transported about 225 residents to and from downtown Ottawa and Gatineau. After a suspension of services between May and September, Russell Transpo ran only one bus on the routes.
In the report presented to the council recommending the suspension of services, Economic Development director Dominique Tremblay said Russell Transpo had grown in popularity before the pandemic and had been a factor in some new residents’ decision to move to the township instead of other nearby municipalities. While speaking before council, she pointed to a survey of 124 Russell Transpo users, in which 63.7 percent said they would use the service again in 2022 after a one-year suspension. “I feel that it's not the appropriate time to use the COVID situation to end a service that could have been profitable at the end of the year of 2021 [if the pandemic had not happened],” she said at the council meeting.
The administration’s recommended proposal, including the 2021 suspension, followed by a gradual return to services from 2022 to the expiration of the contract in mid-2023, would cost $524,520. The cancellation of the service, however, would cost $274,576, including the six month’s notice required to terminate the contract.
Mayor Pierre Leroux, who suggested the amendment to cancel the contract, raised concerns about the township using public funds for a bus service when neighbouring municipalities, such as The Nation and Casselman, did not. “The increase in fees was closer to the market rate, yet in Casselman, in Limoges, in Saint-Isidore, there's no municipal contribution,” he said. “Either we're paying way too much or the public funds coming through us are being used to lower the cost for everybody else.”
Councillors Jamie Laurin and Mike Tarnowski voted in favour of the motion to cancel the contract and cited both the uncertainty of the suspension period, as well as the number of federal public servants who would return to physical workplaces in Ottawa and Gatineau once the pandemic ended.
“With us not knowing what's going to happen with the [federal] employees, this gives the private sector all the time in the world to revisit the program and they can then decide if they want to service the region with a bus service to Ottawa on their terms,” Laurin said.
André Brisson and Cindy Saucier voted against the cancellation and expressed support for continuation of the Russell Transpo service. “It is an essential service we're providing and we're providing a good service,” Saucier said. “It's better for the environment, you've got less cars on the road, you've got less accidents, people are safer… there's many, many pluses to providing a service of this kind.”
In his tiebreaker vote, Leroux voted in favour of the amendment to cancel the contract. “I don't think anybody here is saying we don't want this service,” he said. “What I'm saying is, does it have to be publicly funded, when it's privately funded everywhere else and there are zero taxpayer dollars going into the company.”
417 Bus Line director of operations Mario Laplante said he was disappointed with the council’s decision and said the municipal service had been a major attraction for new residents. “It’s too bad the mayor and councillors didn’t have enough vision for their own municipality and cancelled that,” he said. “It’s a loss for us, it’s a loss for my employees, it’s a loss for the community.”
Laplante said the company would consider operating a private service between Russell and Ottawa from the end of next year, but warned that the route would change and fares could be higher. “We won’t have the federal grants to help us cover the cost of the transportation,” he said. “The hours and price will change big time for Russell compared to what they were paying for. That’s what we expect depending on the demand and depending on how open the federal offices are.”