Squamish-Whistler transit approved amid future funding concerns 

Commuter bus to begin service in the New Year

Whistler council has approved a short-term commuter bus service between Whistler and Squamish amid concerns there is no long-term funding source for the service.

Mayor Hugh O’Reilly and Councillor Ken Melamed voted against the four-month pilot project at a special council meeting on Monday morning, in part because the future is so uncertain.

"It isn’t firm footing from which to move forward," said Melamed.

Yet four of six councillors at the meeting (Councillor Nick Davies was not present) voted to approve the service.

In his presentation to council Brian Barnett, the municipality’s general manager of engineering and public works, outlined the potential risks associated with the pilot project. He explained that when Whistler began exploring this service in earnest last summer they intended to ask the province to create a regional transit authority, which could impose a fuel tax in the corridor to help pay for transit. Support for that initiative from other regional stakeholders hasn’t been forthcoming.

In addition, Whistler has yet to get assurances that there will be provincial support for a corridor-wide fuel-tax initiative.

Since the June presentation the costs for the pilot project have also increased. The annual cost presented in June was more than $469,000, compared to a currently budgeted annual cost of more than $591,000. Those two figures are based on an annual service at $4 per fare.

"It’s an expensive service," said Barnett, adding that B.C. Transit has offered little by way of explanation for the increased operating costs.

Barnett also reminded council that they needed to understand the potential risks of approving the service without an identified long-term funding source.

"Whenever we establish a public service it is difficult to stop the service," he said. "We’re very cautious about establishing a service because of the expectations that go along with it."

While commuter bus service between Whistler and Squamish has been talked about for years the urgency grew after seven people were killed in two-vehicle collision in Squamish last January. Five of the people, in one vehicle, were nightshift workers returning home to Squamish.

Despite the funding concerns the majority of council opted to move ahead with the pilot project on the condition that the proposed $3 fare, which was approved by Squamish council last week, be increased to $4. This week Squamish council approved the $4 fare.

"I think $3 is an outrageously good deal," said Councillor Gordon McKeever. "I’m more comfortable with a $4 fare than $3."

But O’Reilly wanted assurances about the future.

Comparing the decision to the 2010 Olympic Games, the mayor reminded council that Whistler was very strategic in those negotiations with the province, ultimately securing a number of legacies for the community. They have yet to do that with transit funding.

O’Reilly also wanted to get regional partners to participate in what he sees as a regional benefit. Though letters have been sent to all the local governments in the region, there has yet to be a buy-in for the idea of a regional transit authority.

"They (the regional district board) perceive this as our problem and we should be paying for our problem," said the mayor, who is Whistler’s representative on the regional board.

Melamed was also worried that Whistler was contributing to funding for a Squamish bus service but not kicking in for the service to Pemberton and Mount Currie, which also ferries Whistler employees to and from the resort.

"It’s not treating our neighbours to the north in a fair and equitable way," he said.

He also called for B.C. Transit to step up to the plate and contribute its fair share of funding.

The budget sees Whistler and Squamish equally contribute roughly $65,000 for the four-month pilot project. That number would jump to more than $200,000 each for an annual service.

In addition, the Ministry of Transportation is contributing $40,000 on a one time basis and the Whistler hotel sector has also pledged $10,000 to the pilot project as a way of ensuring shift workers have access to transit.

"We all want it to work. We all believe in transit," said Melamed.

But he said the question remains justifying the service to the Whistler taxpayers without fair and equal participation.

The service is set to begin on Jan. 3. The buses will leave from Squamish at 6:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. and from Whistler at 7:45 a.m., 5 p.m. and midnight.


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