Whistler transit needs taxpayer help 

"Minimally acceptable transit" could mean a three per cent property tax increase

There's a gap in transit funding, and it may have to be made up with a property tax increase of three per cent.

That's according to Joe Paul, the municipality's manager of development services, who said at a June 14 transit open house that ensuring dependable, affordable public transit would require council to approve a tax increase that could net the municipality $900,000 in revenue.

Without it, transit will have to be drastically reduced.

"The $900,000 means a three per cent tax increase, over and above anything that's currently being considered," he said in an interview. "I don't honestly know how those taxes work, but that's what I'm told, when the (tax department) told me $900,000 means a three per cent tax increase, I take their word for it."

The open house was held as part of a transit service review being held by the municipality in conjunction with BC Transit.

The review aims to close a major gap in transit funding that's been caused due to significant cost increases associated with new buses; a new transit facility; new contract terms; service expansion; and over-estimated revenue projections.

A cash infusion of up to $900,000 would allow Whistler to reach a "minimally acceptable" service level that would see annual service hours set at approximately 58,600, with a peak fleet of 15 buses.

It would mean keeping the #2 Games Express bus; the #5 Marketplace Shuttle; adding weekend increases to the #1 and #6 routes; and adding flexible winter hours for overloads and spring increases.

BC Transit and the municipality are also considering putting a bus on the highway that would travel from Alpine all the way down to Cheakamus, providing an express route that runs right through town.

The rub is that reaching "minimally acceptable service" would require a tax increase of three per cent on property taxes. "Minimally acceptable service" also means cancelling service into Spring Creek, Blueberry and Alta Lake Road altogether due to low ridership on those routes.

"We looked at what's the best system we could provide, given the existing budget box that we've got," Paul said. "For this year we're fine because we have a bridging strategy in place, but next year it hits the wall, we've only got that much in the budget.

"So there's a few decisions to be made here, do you try to stick with your existing budget, and in 2012, or in November of this coming year, in fiscal year 2012, do you cut it back to a 30,000 service hour system, which we defined as fiscally constrained.

"We wanted to provide council a picture of what that would look like if we didn't ask them to raise taxes in order to fund the transit system."

Keeping funding for transit at its current levels would allow Whistler and BC Transit to operate a system with 30,000 service hours, with a fleet of 13 buses and eight running at peak times. Instead the current level of funding is servicing a system with 74,782 service hours, with 30 total buses and 26 running at peak times.

Ramping transit down to 30,000 service hours would bring buses down to a level previously seen in Whistler in 1999, according to Graeme Masterton, director of planning with BC Transit.

"You'd have three to four routes, a half hour service on most of them at best, maybe hourly, with one main route that has 20 to 30 minute service," he said in an interview. "It would be challenging."

Steve Anderson, an Alta Vista resident who attended the open house, said he's in favour of plans to cut service to routes that aren't used very often and to have a bus that traverses the highway right through town.

"I had been told that 85 per cent of the seats are empty, so I think there's a lot of room to cut it," he said. "I really think it should be, just the way the valley's laid out, it's a linear service, staying out of the neighbourhoods, just going up and down the valley, and I would use that."

A tax increase to fund transit is by no means a done deal in Whistler. Such an increase would have to be approved by council, which would first have to be provided with a recommendation from staff that shows both a transit system and how a tax increase would help.

Municipal staff are expected to report to council on August 23 with a transit system configuration that includes the Whistler Transit System Service review, public comments from the open house as well as feedback provided online, a transit system financial audit and review of the transit facility.

Members of the public who did not attend the open house can submit comments online at whistler.ca, where they can find documents that outline possible route changes and various other measures that both the municipality and BC Transit are taking in order to maintain public transit.

Comment forms will be accepted through to July 8.

 

 

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