On Monday, cabinet member for transport Lynne Stagg approved £215,000 to continue running each of the five routes it helps fund in 2022, backing the recommendations of a report that said they were ‘essential’ for key workers.
But she urged First to speed up work to retrofit buses on the 25 service which will be subject to Clean Air Zone charges to limit what could be an £18,500 cost to the council over the course of the year.
‘I will accept all the recommendations but I would like to put a lot of pressure on First to get that retrofitting done as soon as possible,’ Cllr Stagg said at her decision-making meeting.
‘I don’t see why we should be paying that extra money when they can get a grant – and could have got a grant earlier.’
The routes subsidised by the council, all of which are operated by First, are:
Service 12 from Tipner to Fratton,
services 13 and 14 between the city centre and Baffins,
service 22 from Highbury to Farlington,
and service 25 from the Hard Interchange to the Hayling Ferry
The latter was launched in August 2020 to replace the 6, 15 and 16 routes.
Council figures show passenger numbers have fallen sharply since the first lockdown last year and are only expected to reach 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels this summer.
However, the report said it was important they were kept running.
‘The coronavirus pandemic has had a major impact on public transport ridership but these services are still essential to allow key workers to access employment and residents to access health and make essential journeys,’ it said.
‘Current ridership levels on supported bus services do not reflect likely ridership once we are out of the pandemic. Therefore, planning bus services based on this level of ridership is not recommended.’
The council will pay First £215,880 to operate the services in 2022, a £7,000 increase on this year, but also the Clean Air Zone charge on top of this.
Councillors were told the council would pay this charge for First until it has completed the upgrade of its fleet, which is expected this spring.
But councillor Simon Bosher, the leader of the Conservative group and opposition spokesman for transport warned this arrangement gave no incentive for this work.
‘I’m not overly opposed to [continuing to subsidise the routes] because they have been a victim of coronavirus like so many other things,’ he said.
‘But being cynical I’m looking at this and thinking “oh, that’s the city council paying our Clean Air Zone charge for us”. There’s no incentive on their part to improve their fleet.’
Labour opposition spokesman for transport, councillor Graham Heaney, said the charge was ‘outrageous’ and that the council should not be paying it.
‘If they wanted to avoid it they should have upgraded their buses earlier,’ he said. ‘It’s not suddenly an issue that’s come up, it’s something we’ve known for a long time and they should not expect council taxpayers to pay for them not having compliant buses.’
First declined to comment.