As businesses continue to reopen and more normalcy returns to Rocky View County (RVC), the demand for Rocky View Regional Handibus Society (RVRHS) is continuing to rise.
While the society’s Rocky View Bus program saw drastic declines in ridership during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Executive Director Paul Siller said more people have started using the service again in recent weeks. He said Rocky View Bus operated at roughly 25 per cent ridership throughout the summer and aims to be at 40 per cent by the end of October.
“We have been running all summer and have been responding to the fluctuations of demand,” he said. “In April and May, so many programs and professional operations shut down that we were providing just five per cent of the trips we would normally do in a day. But by August, professional offices were opened up and people were starting to go to those independent things, like go to doctor’s appointments, specialist appointments and also groceries.”
Based in Airdrie and serving various communities within the county, RVRHS is a registered charity that transports seniors and people with disabilities to medical appointments, grocery stores and other locations. The charity has a fleet of 19 buses, Siller said, and was averaging more than 130 rides a day prior to the pandemic.
One reason for the drop in ridership, he added, was so buses could comply with physical distancing guidelines.
“COVID has changed the way we’ve had to operate, and with that change, we’re realizing these smaller buses aren’t as useful as we thought, so now we need to focus on getting some larger ones,” he said.
“As we look forward, we definitely realize we’ve got to start changing our strategic plan for what vehicles we use and choose our larger vehicles so we have more flexibility to actually deal with each day.”
The pandemic has not only impacted operations but also had a substantial financial impact on RVRHS, according to Siller. He said he had to furlough the “vast majority” of his employees, which meant he was unable to prioritize fundraising efforts in recent months.
The other challenge, he added, is that RVRHS is not the only charity that needs help.
“It’s hard to state your case for why people should invest their community support in you when you’re alongside people who are struggling for food bank donations, are getting kicked out of their house or other basics of life,” he said.
Further complicating matters is the charity’s aging buses, some of which are already “into extra innings,” Siller said. He added three cutaway-style buses were planned to be purchased this year to replace the fleet’s oldest vehicles.
“Everything is safe, but there comes a point where [buses] won’t pass inspection anymore and we’ll have to take them off the road,” he said. “That’s another pressure, to make sure we have some vehicles coming down the pipe because it takes 90 to 120 days from the time you say 'Yes, I’d like to buy a vehicle,' to the time it shows up.
“And as a charity, we can’t really order the vehicle until we have the fundraising in place, and who knows how many days that could take.”
The first of the three buses has been ordered, Siller said, and will be paid for with money raised through a casino fundraiser and a matching lottery grant. He added RVRHS is now focusing on the two remaining buses, each of which will cost about $90,000. RVRHS is seeking donations and the society will include donor recognition on the side of each bus for the lifespan of the vehicle.
While the pandemic has brought lots of rethinking and reorganizing for RVRHS, Siller said the charity is pleased to have the community’s continued support. The charity received $300,500 from Rocky View County earlier this year as part of the 2020 Specialized Transportation Grant.
“We know people appreciate what we do,” he said.