Regional transit not likely until 2020 says local MLA 

2019 target date for corridor bus system overly ambitious

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOEL BARDE - Long wait Local MLA Jordan Sturdy says it is looking like Sea to Sky residents will be waiting until 2020 for regional transit.
  • photo by Joel Barde
  • Long wait Local MLA Jordan Sturdy says it is looking like Sea to Sky residents will be waiting until 2020 for regional transit.

Sea to Sky residents may be waiting until 2020 for a regional transportation system to come to fruition.

"Clearly, we're not going to see (regional) transit for 2019," said MLA Jordan Sturdy, a longtime proponent of regional transit following a meeting with local Sea to Sky municipal leaders and the Minister of Transportation Claire Trevena at the Union of BC Municipalities Convention last week in Whistler.

In order to get a regional transportation system off the ground, Pemberton, Whistler, Squamish, as well as the Lil'wat and Squamish Nations, need to develop an agreed-upon governance and financing system.

And according to Sturdy, there is significant work to do on that front.

Sturdy believes it would be wise for leaders to work on establishing a plan to bring to the province over the next year, with the aim of presenting it to government in the fall of 2019. That would allow the province to roll the necessary financing into its spring, 2020 provincial budget.

But even with a year to work something out, striking an agreement will be tough, said Sturdy, especially in light of the fact that there is expected to be significant turnover on Whistler, Pemberton, and Squamish councils after local elections next month.

"There is going to be a big knowledge gap and a lot of education necessary for those councillors to really feel they have a handle on their own community responsibilities, let alone their regional obligations," said Sturdy.

Regional transportation is seen as a priority for Sea to Sky municipalities, as it would provide consistent public transportation options between Vancouver, Squamish, Whistler, Pemberton and Mount Currie.

Establishing regional transit has taken on added urgency since Greyhound Canada's July announcement that it will effectively cease all services in Western Canada. The change will take effect this fall.

Over the summer, Squamish, Pemberton, Whistler and the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) signed onto a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Regional Transit that is seen as an important first step in establishing the governance and financing system.

It sets out principles for the parties to work towards, such as equitable funding and benefits, as well as minimum service levels for the first three years of operations.

Importantly, the MOU also sets out that the regional transit system will be governed under a commission-type structure made up of Sea to Sky communities rather than operating under the jurisdiction of the SLRD, as was previously discussed.

Yet, according to Sturdy, determining how that commission-type structure will operate will require significant discussion and negotiation.

"Is it one member, one vote?" pondered Sturdy.

"That would be a place to start. But each community has different interest and different capacity."

Both the Squamish and Lil'wat Nations are partners in the regional transit initiative, though it is unclear if they have signed onto the MOU. The Nations did not return a request for comment by press time.

According to Village of Pemberton Mayor Mike Richman, stakeholder communities remain committed to establishing the regional transit system by 2019, as the need for it is only growing.

"It is ambitious, but I think we can get it done," said Richman.

"I think we can put together the funding and government models together."

Richman said that there is buy-in from all stakeholder communities and municipalities, and that they are "on the same page" when it comes to understanding the importance of the system.

"From the provincial side ... they agreed that it was ambitious. But they feel they can do what steps they require within that timeline," he said.

Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden is also focused on making regional transit a reality by the fall of 2019. But she said before that happens, member communities must get behind the idea of using a fuel tax (essentially a surcharge at Sea to Sky gas stations) to help fund the costly system. "We need to, as a group, agree that a fuel tax is a way to go. We're in a process of moving that forward at this point," she said.

"All we need from the province is to agree that the funding will consist of whatever it will consist of .... and then all of the contractual documents and the detail can be worked out once we receive that first assurance."

Outgoing Squamish Mayor Patricia Heintzman said that she would like to see the province allocate money for buses and "bridge financing" in its 2019 provincial budget. That, she explained, would allow more time for the Sea to Sky member communities to flush out a workable finance and governance system.

"I'm wishful thinking a little bit, but I know the province wants to see some wins on the regional transit front and would love to make this deadline, so I'm hopeful that they'll be really facilitative in helping us get there by Sept. 19," said Heintzman.

Noting that the regional transportation system could be a ways off, Sturdy is hoping that a private solution will help fill the gap.

He recently shared a survey on his Facebook page from a group of business people that is considering developing a private transit solution between Mount Currie, Pemberton and Whistler.

While Sturdy said that he would like to see a private option implemented, he underlined the need for a "robust and well-funded" regional transportation system.

The obligation is with local governments to say, "Here is what we want to do, here is how we want to do it, and here is how we want to pay for it," said Sturdy.

That said, negotiations will be challenging.

"As we can see by how long it's taken to get to where we are, if we want to have transit in place by the spring of 2020, then we are really going to have to hustle," he added.

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