Still rolling after all these years

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City transit system celebrates 25 years of taking you from here to there

Click. That sound you’re hearing is the odometer on a bus with red and blue stripes rolling over to its silver year of service as St. Albert Transit marks its 25th anniversary tomorrow.

Since July 2, 1986, the public transit system has been owned and operated by the City of St. Albert and it hasn’t looked in the rearview mirror since. What actually started in 1913 with the inter-urban railway between this city and the Calder neighbourhood of north Edmonton is now a bustling and modern system. Every year, the buses travel 2.2 million kilometres and log more than 1.25 million riders, most of whom are commuters into and from Edmonton.

Today’s St. Albert Transit buses have computerized hydraulics to bring the floor down to ground level for passengers with limited mobility. They are fitted with centralized GPS tracking and navigation to make sure everything is running smoothly. Passengers can even be one step ahead of the game by viewing the new NextBus site on their smartphones or other web-enabled devices. The real-time bus tracker lets people check if they’ve got five minutes to fill up their coffee cup first before getting to the bus stop.

Dez Liggett, the first person to fill the shoes of director of the city department on wheels, remembers the early days as somewhat nerve-wracking but with a viable and beneficial goal in mind.

“It was frantic … but planned and organized,” he said. “We were starting something from new.”

Transit system in transit

This celebration is really just an acknowledgement of the formal city department, but St. Albert has had buses going for decades before that.

While a storage barn fire cut the inter-urban railway line off after lasting only about a year, the connection between St. Albert and Edmonton was irrevocable. A generation or two later, in the 1950s and 60s, there were various bus companies that conducted services in this city.

By the 1970s, the Town of St. Albert decided it was time to take on the task and contracted Edmonton Transit to operate three of its buses back and forth for commuters along St. Albert Trail during peak hours starting in 1974. Every day about 300 people paid a fare of 50 cents for each ride.

Two years later, the town had 10 of its own regular transit buses as the service expanded to the University of Alberta. Locally, Briggs Bus Lines was contracted to ferry passengers on eight yellow school buses.

The ball didn’t start rolling for an actual city department until 1984. The cost of the contract had become burdensome and there were enough passengers to justify the decision to make the leap.

“The view at the time was ‘Hey, we’re big enough that we can operate our own transit system’. We had basically six months to create it,” Liggett reminisced. “It was an exciting time but it was a huge challenge.”

The streetcars of desire

The first fleet was comprised of 23 GMC ‘New Look’ transit buses, painted in the current red, blue and white livery. Today’s fleet has 55 vehicles of various sizes and shapes including the 18-metre-long articulated ‘bendy’ buses, the aforementioned low floor wheelchair accessible buses and the specialized handibuses that can arrive right at the doorstop of any registered passenger with a cognitive or physical challenge.

Don Paterson, former bus operator and now manager within the transit office, explains it’s all about serving the public. When asked what he misses most, the ex-military man was quick to answer, “The customers.”

“Greeting them early in the morning or once you take them home later in the afternoon, quite often you see the same folks. People seem to appreciate a good ride and they’re quite grateful.”

What he doesn’t miss are the winter mornings when he was out on the streets before the graders. Even the buses get stuck but another one is never far behind.

Liggett says he still occasionally takes the bus, mostly for meetings in downtown Edmonton.

“I’ll hop on the bus and say hi to the guys. It’s nice to see them still running around but a lot has certainly changed in 25 years.”

Keeping up with – and ahead of – the times

It has always been important for people like Liggett and his successor, current director Bob McDonald, to make buses as accessible and available as possible.

“When I came here there was almost a thought that once this thing was up and running … all you had to do was sit back and watch the buses going around and around,” Liggett laughed. “That wasn’t me.

“Over the years I would have to say that the hallmark of St. Albert Transit has been innovation. Because we were a small transit system … we were able to do new things.”

The city was the first in Western Canada to use the articulated buses and the first in the country to operate the low floor buses on regularly scheduled routes. Currently, 90 per cent of the population lives within 400 metres of a bus stop.

Last year, the fleet was also retrofitted with bike racks to make environmentally conscious riders feel more welcome. Its ISO 14001 registration also demonstrates the ongoing commitment to reducing its impact on the environment.

Every year, St. Albert Transit conducts training sessions for seniors who are just learning to ride. To entice new customers, people can ride locally for free every Saturday until Oct. 8, the last day of the Farmers’ Market.

Even NextBus, Liggett says, demonstrates the culture of constant striving for improvement and innovation. St. Albert is the second city in Alberta to use this technology.

“It’s something that I was proud of in my time and clearly is continuing today.”

McDonald added that while everything runs smoothly, there is always an eye to making the system better.

“Over the past 25 years St. Albert Transit has developed into an important part of the array of services that the city provides. It makes St. Albert an attractive place to live.”

To get more information about fares, schedules and bus stops, or anything else related to St. Albert Transit, please call 780-418-6060 or visit www.ridestat.ca.

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About Author

Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns and profiles on people.