United Manitoulin Islands Transit co-operative announces new Saturday bus to Espanola, Sudbury at annual meeting

TEHKUMMAH – Islanders will now have a transit option for traveling to Espanola and Sudbury beginning Saturday, November 13. The option was announced by United Manitoulin Islands Transit (UMIT) at its annual general meeting on November 6, held in Tehkummah. 

“It’s going to be every Saturday until mid-December because we want to support people who want the opportunity to do any extra Christmas shopping or anything like that, without having to worry about driving,” said Johanna Berti, executive director for UMIT. 

Pick-up locations on Manitoulin are the Pavilion parking lot in Gore Bay; Sugar Bush Canadian Coffee House in Kagawong; Paul’s Corner Store in M’Chigeeng; the band office in Aundeck Omni Kaning; and the NEMI recreation centre in Little Current. The bus will also stop at Waubetek Business Development Centre on Highway 6 in Birch Island before dropping passengers off at either the Espanola Mall, the SmartCentre in Sudbury or the Costco Wholesale in Sudbury. There will be time to shop or do other business for a couple of hours before picking riders up and returning in reverse order. 

“We’ve organized this so we’re stopping at the Costco Wholesale in Greater Sudbury where there is local Sudbury transit that will take you to other places in the city if this isn’t an ideal location for you,” Ms. Berti said. “Similarly, at the SmartCentre in Sudbury in the Long Lake area, it will also connect with the south end transit hub. Those buses come every 15 minutes so if you want to leave the location where we drop you off you won’t wait long to move around in Sudbury.”

Rides will be booked online through the umit.ca website. Riders will select pick-up location and destination and at the same time will identify if they have special accessibility or mobility needs. The bus is equipped with a wheelchair lift so scooters and wheelchairs are welcome. A ridership policy ensures people are not traveling with large, heavy items; that they’re polite with staff and other riders; and that they are considerate of other public users of the system prior to pick-up. 

A link to an online COVID screening checklist will be sent to all riders 24 hours in advance of a scheduled pick up. Proof of vaccination is also required and can be uploaded at the same time as COVID screening or shown to the driver at pick-up. Masks must be worn unless the passenger is eating or drinking. 

Tickets for the first Sudbury run on November 13 are being offered at the special rate of $60, return. The actual bus fare on a regular basis, going to and from Sudbury will cost $90 and return fare to Espanola will cost $70. Refunds will not be available, but if rides are missed or must be rescheduled due to weather conditions or not meeting the six rider minimum requirement, riders will be provided with a rescheduled ticket. 

UMIT started a regular inter-community bus route on Manitoulin Island on August 17, 2020. “That was after waiting because COVID hit us in March in that very first year. We waited all the way through the summer months and the board talked a great deal about when we should start or whether we should wait, but we decided that if people are going to get used to the idea of traveling on Manitoulin on a bus, we needed to give them time to do that.”

Free fares were initially offered to facilitate that behaviour but at the same time, there wasn’t much travel because there weren’t many places you could go due to the pandemic. “We did that as best we could through 2020 and when the second lockdown hit us again in 2021, we had no choice: we had to close it down. Everybody was locked in their homes. We knew if we continued to run that bus at $500 a day with no passengers, it was not going to last for very long.”

It meant UMIT had to develop some innovative thinking. They asked, how would we be able to serve a wider reach? “We came up with a plan that enables people to be supportive of public transit and moving off the Island in a way that we can afford now. We’ll see how many people might jump on board with the idea.” 

A ride share system that utilizes electric vehicles supported by a charging station infrastructure across the Island is another innovative project that UMIT is working towards. A gas-powered vehicle ride share pilot project that connects riders on western Manitoulin with existing UMIT routes is expected to start by January 2022. “We applied for a grant through the Rural Transit Solution Fund to do a feasibility study to look at the long-term sustainability and efficacy of electric vehicles, which then requires the infrastructure of electric charging stations,” said Ms. Berti. A strong feasibility study will demonstrate readiness for the capital project to purchase the electric vehicles and infrastructure, which they hope to achieve in 2023 or 2024. 

“The project is not going to be 10 EV charging stations and 10 EVs tomorrow,” explained sustainability consultant and UMIT member Kim Neale. “That’s not what sustainability is. Sustainability is looking at where you are at as an organization and moving towards the steps toward sustainability one step at a time. Our first step is going to be a gas-powered ride share system. We’re going to make sure the technology is suitable for people to be using here.”

UMIT will collect data obtained from the gas-powered ride share system and will measure the daily cost of operating the cars. “We’re going to be sharing the data and information with our riders regularly, with our board members and decision makers, so that people everywhere who are involved in our community will be aware of the cost of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Every single time we share one ride together, we save GHG emissions,” Ms. Neale said.

An existing community transportation grant was extended for two years because of COVID-19. Instead of ending in 2023 it ends in 2025, which gives UMIT the extra time needed to complete the study.