A public transit plan for the West Coast has rolled through a round of public scrutiny and is expected to be finalized by the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District on Wednesday.
The plan calls for two buses to run between Tofino and Ucluelet three times a day from May-October, decreasing to one bus from November-April.
The ACRD estimates it will cost the participating communities roughly $550,000 annually to operate the service through taxation. As reported by the Westerly News, the cost has been broken down to: $274,319 from Tofino, $183,922 from Ucluelet, $74,130 from Electoral Area C, $16,498 from the Ucluelet First Nation and $1,131 from the Toquaht First Nation. Tofino households would pay roughly $167 per year, Ucluelet households about $98 and Area C households about $88.
The estimated $550,000 annual cost includes an expected $161,000 of revenue coming in each year through a $2 ridership fee.
Residents had an opportunity to vote against the plan in an alternative approval process held in lieu of a referendum and the ACRD received 336 response forms of opposition by the Nov. 29 deadline. That number did not cross the 601 forms of opposition needed to either scrap the plan or hold a referendum.
“It’s wonderful. It’s what I hoped for and now we’re one step closer to adopting this and moving on to getting transit in the next 18 months,” Ucluelet mayor Mayco Noel told the Westerly News. “I’m thankful that the residents on the Coast are allowing this process to continue on.”
He said accessibility has long been an issue on the West Coast and the transit system will create a valuable link between West Coast communities.
“I think the people that voted no will probably always say no until the one time that maybe a family member or someone they know needs the service and then they may view it a little bit differently,” he said.
He added though that he had heard concerns from residents over the increased taxes the transit service required to reach fruition.
“I knew that there were probably some residents that were rolling their eyes to the fact that this will create another tax, but I can speak confidently knowing that there is a better good here at the end of the story…This is a direct benefit to the region,” he said.
“Whether it’s at the municipal level or provincial or federal level, taxes in general, people are just sick and tired of it…This isn’t a tax to me, this is about a new service. It wasn’t a tax and getting nothing for it.”
Noel said he agreed with going the alternative approval process route rather than launch a referendum and suggested most of the people he spoke with supported the plan.
“The only people I did run into that had a bit of apprehension, I was able to speak about the greater good,” he said. “When I look at 100 people I may have spoken to, there might have been two or three in there that might have had some reservations and they were not saying that we don’t need the service, they were more worried about another tax line coming on their tax bill.”
In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 29 submission deadline, a Tofino local opposed to the plan circulated pamphlets through West Coast PO boxes urging residents to submit opposition forms.
“It is not fair to the local taxpayers as it is currently not designed to be a user pay system…This results in disproportionate costs being loaded onto Tofino and Ucluelet property owners,” the mail outs read, in part. “We need 602 people to say NO. Do not procrastinate.”
Tofino resident Jarmo Venalainen was not responsible for the pamphlets, but told the Westerly News that he did send an opposition form in.
“I’m not against having a bus,” he said. “I’m for doing it in a way that doesn’t end up with local homeowners and businesses bankrolling it. We’re kind of like the backstop, the guarantor, to make these projects happen. That’s how we’re being treated.”
He suggested Tofino’s municipal taxes are already “sky high” and said the community should be looking for ways to decrease spending.
“We’re accelerating and we’re borrowing on the public credit card. We’re increasing,” he said. “We should be going the other way. We should be adjusting our behaviour.”
He added he was disappointed by what he viewed as insufficient publicity for the process by both the ACRD and District of Tofino.
“As the thing went down, I became aware that there were lots of people that were completely unaware that this was even happening,” he said. “It’s a huge change in how we operate as a community to embark on a bus service and then ask hundreds of thousands of dollars from the community to cough up money…It deserves a much more open and much more public discussion. For example, the district could have sent out little pamphlets explaining what’s going on to every PO box.”
Tofino mayor Josie Osborne did not respond to the Westerly News by presstime.
Venalainen also questioned the threshold that required 601 forms of opposition to represent 10 per cent of affected residents.
That threshold was based on the ACRD’s estimated number of electors of 6,021, which was calculated using the population of residents who were 15 and older at the time of 2016’s census
Venalainen noted that the ACRD credited Tofino with 1,670 eligible voters for the transit service alternative approval process, yet the community had 1,422 estimated eligible voters in 2018’s municipal election, according to CivicInfoBC.
“To me, that’s anomalous. How can we have one election with one number and then another electorate question with a completely different number? Why would that happen? It didn’t make any sense to me,” he said.
The ACRD’s general manager of administrative services Wendy Thompson oversaw the alternative approval process and told the Westerly News that 364 electoral response forms were received, but 28 of those were rejected. She said the rejected forms were caused by residents submitting more than one, or not being filled out properly.
“If somebody owned property in Tofino and Ucluelet, they didn’t get to submit two,” she added.
She said a breakdown of how many opposition forms came in from each participating community is not available.
“The [ACRD] board made a decision to make it one overall [Alternative Approval Process] therefore, we don’t break it down,” she said.
She said she the results will be presented to the ACRD board during their Dec. 11 meeting.
“If they adopt the bylaw, we have created this service and we’ll proceed working with BC Transit to implement the service,” she said.
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to state that 336 forms of opposition were received, not 331 as first reported.