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Opinion: Should Whistler make transit free forever?

'The mountain is high, the valley is low...'
TB free transit
The benefits of free public transit are well documented, but making it a reality in Whistler isn't as easy as snapping our fingers.

The mountain is high, the valley is low, and you’re confused ‘bout which way to go…

With that simple headline, a half dozen municipal bean counters clench their jaws in exasperation, cursing the ignorant fingers that typed this column.

And it’s true: I am not an accountant, nor a planner, nor someone who builds municipal budgets. I do understand competing priorities, established service agreements; that saying we should do something is far easier than actually doing it. But hear me out.

Earlier this summer, I had the pleasure of joining Mayor Jack Crompton for a discussion on The Whistler Podcast.

At one point, I floated a question to him: will Whistler endeavour to make transit free forever?

In his response (spoiler alert here for all of the podcast’s rabid listeners), the mayor said his preference would be to focus investments on enhancing the frequency in the system, ensuring it is as robust and reliable as possible.

It’s a fair point, and it makes for an interesting discussion. The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) has a stated goal of reducing passenger vehicle traffic—the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions locally. Which initiative would get more people out of their cars? Free transit, or more frequent transit?

In a (completely unscientific) Pique reader poll published in late June, 63 per cent of respondents said free transit would get them to ride the bus (51 per cent of whom said they are not regular transit users).

Sixteen per cent said no, but maybe if the RMOW makes the service faster/more convenient.

A full 21 per cent said nothing will get them out of their car.

The RMOW is offering free transit until Labour Day as a way of rebuilding ridership after the four-month transit strike earlier this year. So far it appears to be working, with preliminary data showing average weekly ridership approaching pre-pandemic levels.

But local officials aren’t about to go all-in on free transit.

Last year, the RMOW undertook a review of offering free transit year-round, and found it does not have the financial nor fleet capacity to make it happen.

“Given the already high demand for transit service in the winter, we would not be able to provide a reliable and sufficient service, without adding additional buses to the fleet,” the RMOW’s communications department said in an email.

Further complicating things, the province recently turned down an RMOW request for more transit funding.

“Ultimately, right now, it would be a choice between a free, but under-resourced service, or a reliable service with established funding.”

In its most recent annual operating agreement, the total maximum annual cost of the Whistler Transit System—a partnership between the RMOW, BC Transit and Whistler Transit Ltd.—is pegged at $12.7 million, to be split roughly 50/50 between the RMOW and BC Transit.

It’s not exactly chump change, and making transit free forever would absolutely come with some tradeoffs.

But are there lessons to be learned from other communities? Take Vail, Colo., which has offered free transit since the mid ’70s.

Back then, the Town of Vail and Vail Associates (the ski mountain operator at the time) had an agreement on a two-per-cent lift ticket tax to fund a small bus service. When that service expanded to include outlying routes, the Town of Vail took it over, funding it from its general fund and a lift ticket tax.

Paid parking came to Vail in 1976, when a parking garage was constructed in the village core.

“Free transit service was a natural complement to paid parking in town, with hopes of driving guests to the buses to alleviate congestion in town,” said Jordan Winters, the Town of Vail’s transit operations manager, in an email.

The annual budget for Vail’s 33-bus, nine-route transit system is US$5.915 million. The service sees roughly 3.2 million riders a year, and employs 40 full-time drivers and about 30 additional seasonal drivers in the winter.

“We have not seen any downsides to keeping free transit and we’re continually getting requests for increasing service frequency and expanding the service areas,” Winters said.

Whistler is obviously not an apples-to-apples comparison. We are in a different country, with different governance structures, geography and skier visit metrics, not to mention more than double the permanent population (more than 14,000 to Vail’s 5,700 or so).

With that in mind, Whistler’s transit service is remarkably similar to the Town of Vail’s, with 13 routes (nine in the summer), 31 vehicles, 40 full-time drivers (roughly 25 more in the winter), and a pre-pandemic annual ridership of 3.2 million.

It’s unclear why, exactly, Whistler’s is so much more expensive when the two systems appear functionally the same. In an email, a spokesperson for BC Transit said it couldn’t speak to other jurisdictions, as “there are a number of factors and considerations into how public transportation can be funded and operated,” but pointed out that transit in Whistler is funded using BC Transit’s conventional funding formula as legislated through the British Columbia Transit Act.

So there are longstanding agreements in place; legislation to consider.

But if the Town of Vail can make its very similar transit system free, surely it can’t be a non-starter in Whistler (or in other B.C. communities, for that matter).

The positives of free public transit—on affordability, traffic congestion, emission reduction and more—are well documented.

They’re also not lost on the RMOW, which has made great strides in recent years to offer more free or discounted transit programs, including the Lost Lake and Upper Village shuttles, free weekends, free passes for high school students and rides for kids under 12, and more.

Making transit free forever is not as simple as snapping our fingers—investing in one area means less capacity to invest elsewhere, which is what the mayor was getting at with his preference for increased service.

But with more than 100 cities worldwide now offering free mass transit, and more local governments considering it every day, it’s worth keeping the discussion going at Whistler’s municipal hall.

I leave you now with more selected prose from the works of the immortal American wordsmith Edgar Winter:

All over the country, I’m seeing the same. Nobody’s winning, at this type of game.

We gotta do better, it’s time to begin. You know all the answers must come from within.

Come on and take a free ride. 

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