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Council lukewarm to P3 idea for commuter bus

Council asks Elbert to work with staff but does not approve $10,000 development grant


By Alison Taylor

A young entrepreneur is disappointed council shot down his idea to revive the commuter bus service between Squamish and Whistler.

Joktan Elbert, the man behind the Snowbus, which offers roundtrips from Vancouver to Whistler during the winter, pitched his idea at MondayÕs council meeting for a P3, or Public Private Partnership, between his company and the two municipalities. This P3, he said, would be instrumental in reinstating a commuter bus service after the hugely successful three-month pilot project ended last month.

That pilot project was funded equally between Squamish and Whistler in a partnership with Whistler Transit.

Elbert said his Commuter Club Express would be a stopgap measure for about a year while corridor partners work on a long-term, region-wide transit solution, such as a Regional Transit Authority.

The major catch, however, is that it would need a subsidy of more than $22,000 per month, which he proposed the municipalities could fund in part. ThatÕs one of the reasons why his proposal was met with a lukewarm response from council.

Mayor Hugh O'Reilly said it would be tough to find $22,000 a month to subsidize the service.

ÒIt seems like a lot of effort and energy (for a year's work),Ó he said.

Elbert, who spent almost three years getting the Snowbus off the ground, said it would be fairly simple to get the commuter service up and running by the summer.

ÒI am a bit disappointed that it didnÕt go any further than at least that presentation (on Monday night),Ó said Elbert the following day. ÒAll in all itÕs a pretty straightforward process for us to get buses on the road and servicing the community in a matter of weeks.Ó

Councillor Kristi Wells, while praising Elbert's creativity and research, explained the municipality has a larger vision to create a Regional Transit Authority. Part of that vision could see the corridor implement a gas tax to help pay for the transit service.

ÒCurrently that is where we're focused on,Ó said Wells.

ElbertÕs proposal, based on his preliminary figures, would have seen four buses running between the two communities at peak times, much like the pilot program. Two buses would run early in the morning from Squamish to Whistler. Those buses could also do return trips to Squamish. The buses would again leave Whistler in the early evening and take passengers to Squamish and then return to Whistler.

ÒThere's a lot of opportunity here I think,Ó said Elbert. ÒI'd like to do this and I'm prepared to do it at cost.Ó

Early estimates show the service would cost $46,000 per month, about half of which could be recovered through bus tickets, the rest of which would need to be funded another way. Tickets would cost $4.50 in that scenario. Tickets in the pilot program cost a little less at $4 a ride, with most riders paying only $3 per ride by buying in bulk.

Scott Pass, manager of Whistler Transit, said he knows people are eager to see the commuter service up and running again and he sees the way to do that through the proposed transit authority, which could sustain the service over the years.

ÒI think the regional transit authority is a perfect way of funding it over the long term,Ó he said.

Council invited Elbert to continue to work with municipal staff at Councillor Ken MelamedÕs request, but they did not give him $10,000 for a small development grant as requested.