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Drop in ridership prompts early spring for transit

Late winter service will continue for village shuttle, Creekside Express; construction schedule also released

With rider numbers dropping 10 to 15 per cent this winter, in sync with declining visitor numbers, and similar declines forecast through the rest of the season by Tourism Whistler, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) approached B.C. Transit to review the efficiency of the bus system. It's something that transit service does regularly to ensure that schedules "reflect reality," according to RMOW traffic demand management coordinator Emma DalSanto.

The solution was to move up the switch to the spring-summer-fall schedule by almost month, cutting back service on most bus routes on March 30 that would normally continue until after the Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival (TWSSF). The exception is the Village Shuttle and Creekside Express routes.

"I don't have all the stats on ridership, but when B.C. Transit started looking at it, our numbers were closely related to Tourism Whistler's visitor numbers for the season, which is around a 10 to 15 per cent decline over last year, depending on the week," explained DalSanto. "There was a direct relationship between fewer visitors and the drop in rider numbers."

Typically Whistler has the highest ridership statistics of any transit service in Canada, much less B.C., and mid-winter changes are usually made to increase service or make the system more efficient. However, this is not the first time that Whistler has cut service before the date they originally scheduled. DalSanto said five years ago they had to cut service in response to the province's decision to freeze the budget for transit, which forced service cuts across the province.

Under the current plan the Village Shuttle will continue to run at regular intervals until after the Easter long weekend, then will be reduced to a late winter schedule until May 19, when the hours will be cut and summer service levels begin. The Creekside Express bus will also continue with one bus and fewer scheduled trips until May 18.

DalSanto acknowledges they have been getting angry calls and e-mails from riders who depend on the bus, but said they took steps to inform the public before making the changes by putting billboards on buses and by taking out ads in local papers.

"There's always a lot of displeasure when we change the routes and people are not aware or not prepared," said DalSanto, who is also a transit rider. "I do it too - I should know better than anybody, but I still expect the same bus from the winter to be there after the schedule change, so I know it's painful."

Rather than seeing service ramp up for winter and drop off in the spring, DalSanto says in the future people should get used to a service that ramps up in the fall when employees start to arrive, and ramps down in the spring in response to declining rider numbers.

The good news for WAVE is that the RMOW will save money as a result of B.C. Transit's decision. Under the provincial funding formula Whistler pays 53 per cent of the cost of transit, and by switching to the spring schedule more than three weeks ahead of schedule they could save approximately $56,000. DalSanto stresses that the cuts are not related to the municipal budget or the construction of a new bus depot and hydrogen refueling station north of Nesters.

In addition to the service cuts, WAVE has also adjusted its schedule through the spring, summer and fall to compensate for highway work.

The Sea to Sky Transit service, which links Whistler and Squamish has cancelled the 9:10 p.m. bus from Squamish to Whistler and the 12:20 a.m. bus from Whistler to Squamish as of April 20, a result of highway closures related to the Sea to Sky Highway Improvement Project. There is a chance that the service cuts could be delayed a week, depending on closure plans.

The Highway 99 Whistler Improvements Project from Function Junction to Whistler Village will also create delays and temporary closures for the transit system. DalSanto says they tried to minimize the impact on the whole system by separating bus routes to the north and south of the village. Normally some buses would continue north or south after passing through the gondola transit exchange.

DalSanto says they have adjusted the schedule, anticipating delays of up to 15 minutes through the construction areas. When there are closures in the Nordic Hill area for regrading it may take longer to go around through Nordic or Alta Vista.

"If there are delays to the south of town, we knew they could affect the schedule north of town and affect the whole system," said DalSanto. "At this point we know there are going to be delays, we just don't know exactly when they will be."

DalSanto urged riders to be patient, reminding them that it's only through the fall. "It's an unusual circumstance, and hopefully we won't have to do it again."