SunDog Tour Co. and our involvement with the Jasper Transit Initiative has been the subject of a great deal of conversation and speculation recently. I want to share my perspective and the observations that I have gathered since first becoming involved with the initiative in 2021.
I agree with the philosophy of “shop local” as long as local businesses can provide competitive and comparable levels of value and service to their community.
SunDog Tour Co. believes passionately in the concept of public transportation and the multitude of benefits it can deliver socially, logistically, economically and environmentally. I am confident that we outlined those benefits and our desire to deliver them when we initiated and lobbied for the initial transit service pilot project in the summer of 2021. We proposed and operated a project of “shared risk” where SunDog assumed significant financial risk in the operation of the service in order to assure the community and our partners, including the Municipality of Jasper, that we were fully engaged and motivated to develop an efficient, productive, convenient and cost-effective transit service for the community of Jasper.
The Municipality of Jasper decided to advance the idea of community transit and, in early 2023, committed to crafting and advertising a “Request for Proposal” (RFP) at some point during the 2023 calendar year to supposedly engage transportation operators to submit proposals to operate the service. The actual date of the RFP was left a mystery. SunDog learned that the RFP had been put forth the same way most town councilors found out about it – through an interview Mayor Ireland gave to the CBC on April 8, 6 days before the closing date for proposal submissions.
In my opinion, the process undertaken by the Municipality for this initiative was an embarrassment and it did a disservice to the community and to the very idea of Jasper community transit.
I think a local councillor spoke for many when they said to me earlier this summer; “the launch of the transit service should be a happy time and I really want to feel good about it, but the process followed by Jasper Municipality Administration has made that almost impossible”.
As much as I appreciate the sympathetic comments directed our way, I find it troubling that SunDog is sometimes being portrayed as the victim of this process. Outside of me, my family and SunDog employees, do most Jasper taxpayers really care whether SunDog Tour Co. is awarded a local Transit Service contract? I doubt it. Why would they? Does the taxpaying public care whether the Municipality Administration and council engages in honest, open, inclusive and transparent processes and negotiations that honour the values that they claim to cherish? I think they probably do.
Every other transportation company, local or otherwise, that had no idea that the Request for Proposal (RFP) was even advertised and therefore did not prepare or submit a bid could be considered a victim of this shoddy, inadequate process. Ultimately, the real victims are the taxpayers of Jasper. After several years of discussion, 2 strategies prepared by private consulting companies at considerable expense to the community and countless hours of planning and research by MOJ employees, local operators, stakeholders and interested community members, the RFP for the approximately 1.7 million dollar, 3 year contract was prepared to begin the search for an operator to actually execute the service. The RFP was advertised and promoted absolutely nowhere, with the exception of a little-known provincial procurement website called Alberta Purchasing Connection.
Should the community be satisfied with Administration only receiving and reviewing 2 bids, and only one from a local operator? To be clear, the lack of bids was not due to lack of interest locally, it was entirely due to a lack of awareness. I have absolutely no idea why Jasper Municipality Administration did not engage the community and encourage more local participation. I have voiced my concerns and frustration to the mayor, administration and council many, many times over the past several months and I have repeatedly been told by the self-proclaimed “champions of local business” that they were confident they had met the bare minimum requirements of the local procurement demands. How many other compelling, innovative, high-value bids might the community have been able to choose from, had the Municipality Administration simply exercised a more proactive, engaging approach? We’ll never know.
Let me be perfectly clear; the winning bidder, Pacific Western Transportation (PWT), has done absolutely nothing wrong. They are the largest privately held transportation company in Canada, they specialize in operating urban transit services and I know that they are committed to offering a high quality service to our community.
I am not going to go into the entire litany of shortcomings, contradictions and misrepresentations of the Request for Proposal and selection process, but here are a few highlights:
According to the Municipality Scoring system:
30% of the score was based on price. SunDog Tour Co. was a minimum of 14% less expensive than the winning bid, based on use of comparable coaches.
30% of the score was based on local infrastructure, including parking, wash and mechanical facilities. The winning bidder had none of these facilities, yet they received an almost perfect score from the Municipality selection committee.
Both bids were submitted inclusive of fuel costs, because that is exactly what the RFP specifically required. Administration has recently made the decision to pay for all fuel for the operation of the service at an additional expense to the Jasper taxpayer. When questioned about this decision, the Municipality CAO stated that the decision was made “in the interest of transparency”. This act and answer is absolutely outrageous and amounts to economic nonsense and a stunning level of recklessness with community funds.
I learned recently that the Municipality is planning to build additional infrastructure to accommodate the transit service vehicles. Why? The RFP demanded that the operating company provide their own infrastructure and housing of vehicles. This new expenditure seems like a questionable use of community funds that will likely lead to yet another tax increase. Perhaps I am misinterpreting the statement issued by the MOJ?
Do I feel that SunDog Tour Co. deserved this contract? Absolutely. Do I feel that we deserved any special treatment during the selection process? Absolutely not. I feel like we deserved the contract because we were the lowest priced bid and because we had the local expertise and infrastructure in place, we were positioned to launch the service at the lowest possible cost to taxpayers and then seamlessly “scale up” as demand increased.
SunDog Tour Co., not the Municipality, initiated and successfully operated the Transit pilot project in 2021 at considerable expense to our company. The data that we collected from that project was utilized during the creation of the local Transit Strategy. I was also asked to assist the consulting company (uncompensated) with the final strategy that was submitted to administration and council. All of the above seemed like an obvious advantage to the community of choosing SunDog Tour Co.
If someone were to ask me what quality I look for most in a town council and administration, my answer would be “trust”. For me, the biggest casualty of this entire process and initiative has been the concept of trust.
Do I trust that Jasper Municipality administration is conducting procedures and negotiations in an honest, open, engaging, transparent, unbiased and professional manner? – NO.
Do I trust that the mayor, administration and the councilors who have publicly pledged and, in some cases, even campaigned on a promise of “fostering, nurturing and strengthening relationships with the business sector” are actually honoring that commitment? – NO
To be fair, councilors Damota, Melnyk and Kelleher-Empey, who have all voiced their support for community transit, voted against this particular initiative, not because they disagreed with the company selected but because of the procedure and strategy undertaken by the MOJ.
Despite our enormous disappointment in Jasper Municipality Administration, we still believe in the concept of Jasper community transit and we would like to see this initiative succeed. SunDog has entered into a sublease agreement with PWT to provide the local infrastructure they require and we will assist them whenever required to help ensure smooth operation of the transit service.
Thank you Jasper for all of the support you have shown us over the past 26 years, we cannot adequately express how much we appreciate it.
Owner, SunDog Tour Co.