Economics of transportation

Most people understand that the cost of driving a car is greater than the price of filling the gas tank and buying insurance. But there seems to be less understanding of the costs of public transportation; the user fee is the only figure that resonates.

The topic is timely as the five-year-old commuter bus service between Squamish and Whistler appears likely to be shut down at the end of December. The issue is the cost and who pays for it.

The bus service was started following a horrific head-on collision involving a van carrying five hotel workers home to Squamish and a father and son in a car heading north. All seven people died.

The Resort Municipality of Whistler and the District of Squamish initially funded the twice-a-day bus service when it began in the winter of 2005-06. BC Transit came to the table a couple of years later and began contributing its standard 47 per cent of costs.

Whistler has funded its portion of the bus service - originally $77,000 annually, now more than $200,000 a year - from a reserve fund contributed by a developer. The fund is running out, as is Whistler's original commitment to the service: to the end of 2010.

Whistler says there are about 120 people a day who use the Squamish-Whistler bus service. Whistler has about 12,000 full time positions, so approximately one per cent of workers use the commuter bus. The price is $5 per ride - increasing to $8 per ride Nov. 1 - although most riders buy books of tickets, which reduces the per-ride fare to less than $5.

Whistler says the actual cost of providing the service is about $18 per rider. No one is going to pay a bus fare of $18 so the issue becomes who will subsidize the service and by how much.

Many Whistler hotels already provide a travel allowance for their employees. The Fairmont Chateau Whistler, for example, offers $8.50 per day to cover travel expenses for employees who live out of town. Managers of Whistler hotels met last week to discuss the commuter bus service and decided they can't provide any additional subsidy.

Meanwhile, the bus service that connects Mount Currie and Pemberton with Whistler is subsidized by Pemberton taxpayers, to the tune of about $80,000 per year. BC Transit covers 47 per cent of the cost.

Within Whistler, the municipality partners with BC Transit and Whistler Transit, a private company, to provide bus service to all neighbourhoods. The service includes a "free" shuttle between the Blackcomb Benchlands and the village. The municipality uses some of the hotel tax to subsidize the free service. Whistler taxpayers subsidize the regular bus service.

One of the problems with this patchwork of free, unequally subsidized, regional and local bus services is that residents of Whistler, Squamish and Pemberton have seen what bus service can be when cost is no object. Last February, after an initial few days when new drivers had to ask passengers for route directions, bus service during the Olympics was frequent, reliable and convenient. That isn't always the case today. Whistler councillors expressed that sentiment earlier this year.

Much of the problem, of course, is money. BC Transit generally covers 47 per cent of the cost of bus service for smaller communities across the province. That leaves local governments and bus riders to fund the remaining 53 per cent.

In the Lower Mainland, TransLink recently asked local governments for an additional $68.2 million next year to help fund transit options, including the Evergreen Line. TransLink proposed a property tax increase of $5.20-$9 per $100,000 assessed value. Metro Vancouver mayors, who have been raising property taxes in recent years, responded by asking the province to impose a gas or vehicle levy to cover the increase, rather than hiking property taxes again.

A regional transit authority for the Sea to Sky corridor - which has been discussed and which BC Transit seems to have provided for when it built its bus depot in Whistler - might help even out funding formulas for the various transportation services, but the basic question of funding remains only partially and inadequately answered.

For Whistler, which has wrestled one of its most persistent issues - employee housing - to the ground and now has about 76 per cent of its workforce living locally, a sound, cohesive transportation system is key to making the resort work. Challenging as it is, transportation funding should be a priority.


For the record

In last week's column Intrawest CEO Bill Jensen was referred to as a former head of Vail Resorts. In fact, Jensen headed Vail Resorts' mountain division under Adam Aron and later Bob Katz.



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