KANANASKIS COUNTRY – Kananaskis Improvement District (KID) is gearing up its pursuit of a transit feasibility study and is asking the MD of Bighorn to hop aboard.
KID council believes the districts may share desired transit outcomes as both face similar connectivity issues related to tourism, worker retention and meeting the accessibility needs of residents.
“We believe there is alignment with workforce commuting, accessing recreational areas of interest, and there seems to be alignment on geographical aspect in regard to our population densities in a large area and trying to move people around a large geographical region, and the significant distance in between some of those pockets of access,” said CAO Kieran Dowling at an April 25 KID council meeting.
Dowling and municipal advisor Kie Shiroma gave a presentation to the MD of Bighorn’s governance and priorities committee in March to kickstart a conversation around transit, with both councils planning to pursue feasibility studies this year.
Rather than pursuing two separate studies, KID is proposing a collaborative effort which includes establishing an inter-municipal cooperation agreement, creating a joint transit committee and pooling transit feasibility funding allocated by each council’s 2023 budget for one study.
KID has set aside $20,000 and the MD, $25,000. KID also has a transit committee in councillors Darren Enns and Erum Afsar – established in February with a terms of reference.
Discussions around transit have come to the forefront of council in recent months, with a primary focus on the high volume of vehicles brought in by four million-plus visitors to Kananaskis each year, filling parking lots to the brim and spilling into ditches and along roadways.
While visitation has mostly returned to a pre-COVID-19 level, visitor management challenges highlighted at peak periods of the pandemic are still top of mind for both council and Alberta Parks, which has expressed interest in exploring transit further with KID where it could enable better access to outdoor recreation while safeguarding natural environments.
Transit discussions started in Bighorn years ago, with the MD at one point applying for funding through the province for a feasibility study. It was awarded $15,000 in 2019, but that was later retracted because the study was not started in time.
Bighorn Reeve Lisa Rosvold said the grant amount was a factor in the delay. It likely would not have been enough to cover the full scope the MD’s study would require, but the desire for a public transit option is still there – especially for residents.
“This is something a lot of residents of Bighorn have been expressing interest in; having some transportation network within the MD,” said Rosvold.
“Our main goal right now is asking the question, what would that look like? And is it really feasible for us? We don’t want to put the cart before the horse, we’d like to understand what would be possible or not be possible before we start making any other decisions.”
In 2021, the MD explored the notion of joining Roam, servicing Banff, Canmore and ID No. 9, but a report to council estimated it would be too costly for its population base.
The move would also have required Bow Valley Regional Transit Services Commission members to vote in favour of adding the MD to its makeup.
KID has also discussed the idea of joining Roam, but not to the length of determining costs or other requirements. Conducting a feasibility study could provide a closer examination of whether it would be worth the price.
Ridership and scope of the feasibility study may differ between the two jurisdictions, Dowling noted, which is why further discussion between the two councils still needs to take place. At this stage, KID has made a proposal to Bighorn, but no vote has taken place at MD council on whether to proceed. KID councillors voted in favour of exploring joint transit at their last meeting.
Initial discussions of KID council are to explore a route that would focus on Highway 40 – the gateway to Kananaskis from Highway 1.
The study would look at better understanding operational service level models, frequency, ridership volume, expectation of bus size, accessibility options and features, departure and pickup locations, and integration with other regional transit services, such as Roam.
A similar model to Roam – with support from the province – could also benefit KID and Bighorn. While the districts have fewer residents than Roam’s service area, they are also more widely dispersed which creates accessibility issues, and many of the same visitor-related challenges apply.
“Where I keep coming back to is that it’s undeniable that our mountain communities are tourism-oriented economies and that building a successful tourism destination requires successful infrastructure to support them,” said Enns.
In years past, new infrastructure to address connectivity might have come in the form of more roads and parking lots, but Enns, who is also director of planning and development with the Town of Banff, said he believes public transportation will be what “underpins” Kananaskis and the MD, as Roam has for Banff and Canmore.
While he also had some initial concerns about the autonomy of KID by partnering with the MD, Enns said he believes public transit works best as a collaborative effort.
“This is new ground for us, and sure, we might not have all the same goals, but surely working together with our neighbours is better than going at it alone,” he said.
The MD is expected to discuss whether it would like to explore transit options with KID at its May 9 council meeting.
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.