The West Coast’s longtime quest for a public transit service continues to go round and round while timelines consistently move on back.
The Alberni Clayoquot Regional District is hoping to have a bus service connecting Ucluelet, Tofino and surrounding First Nations communities by April.
“The goal is to develop an interim transit solution that could be locally funded and developed with the support of community, transportation and government stakeholders,” Shilpa Panicker of Watt Consulting Group told the ACRD’s West Coast Committee on Dec. 6, adding the service is about 70 per cent through its journey to implementation.
“We’ve been in the process of finalizing the contract with the operating company. Things have been kind of slow moving forward…We’ve gotten to a point where we have an operating company identified to implement the service. The contract with that operating company is being finalized by the ACRD at this time.”
She said the program is expected to cost about $670,000 annually, or about $116 an hour for a total of 5,700 hours.
Panicker explained the route connecting West Coast communities would include 42 bus stops: six in Ucluelet, 24 in Tofino, two in the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation communities of Ty-Histanis and Esowista, four in the Ucluelet First Nation community of Hitacu, two stops at the West Coast junction and four within the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
She said work is still being done to determine the location of stops and possible shelters.
Back in 2019, it looked like BC Transit was on its way to provide the long sought after bus service across the West Coast. BC Transit officials hosted public engagement sessions locally and the ACRD unanimously approved the program’s launch, which was initially scheduled for 2021.
An alternate approval process, held instead of a referendum, passed with West Coast residents agreeing to pay the BC Transit service’s estimated annual operating cost of $550,000 through taxation with Tofino paying about $274,319, roughly $167 per household, Ucluelet paying $183,922, roughly $98 per household, and Electoral Area C paying about $74,130, roughly $88 per household. Additional funding was expected to come in from the Ucluelet First Nation and Toquaht First Nation. The BC Transit service was delayed several times before local officials were flummoxed to learn that the provincial government had cancelled the promised West Coast service during the Union of BC Municipalities convention in 2021.
That abrupt cancellation led to the ACRD seeking out an alternative, locally operated bus service with the idea to launch a temporary program while the West Coast waits for the province to put a more permanent BC Transit service back on the table.
Panicker said the interim service would need to be able to transfer cleanly over to BC Transit if the province follows through with implementing the once-promised public transit service.
She said basic fareboxes would likely be used, though cashless technology options are being explored.
“We’re trying to see what would be the easiest and most cost-effective way of bringing in cashless technology given that this is an interim service and given that BC Transit is potentially going to take over this service in a few years,” she said.
She suggested avoiding branding on the buses due to the cost, which she estimated at around $10,000.
“The idea here though is that eventually when BC Transit comes in, this logo would have to be adapted,” she said.
She added the ACRD is planning to implement the service in April, 2024, with a marketing campaign slated for March.
Ucluelet mayor Marilyn McEwen suggested she had been under the impression that the service would be starting in January and asked about the delay to April.
Panicker responded that finalizing the contract has taken “a little longer than anticipated” as well as figuring out the technology to use and collaborating with BC Transit.
“We don’t want to set up a service in a way that eventually, when and if BC Transit comes in, is going to be hard to transition to BC Transit,” she said. “It’s got to be compatible with what BC Transit is going to bring in, so all of these things have definitely added a lot more time than we had anticipated.”
She said Watt Consulting Group has had two coordination meetings with BC Transit so far.
“We don’t know for certain whether the service is going to start from BC Transit. There is indications that it is imminent, but we just want to be on the safer side and ensure that, if and when that service starts, there is a coordinated effort and it’s not one of those things that when BC Transit comes in it’s a start from scratch at their end,” she said.
Tofino Coun. Tom Stere noted a local transit service has been a oft-discussed topic at municipal and regional government tables and asked if any headway had been made with the province and BC Transit.
District CAO Daniel Sailland said the ACRD has been coordinating with Mid Island-Pacific Rim MLA Josie Osborne to set up a meeting with B.C.’s transportation minister Rob Fleming.
“Once we have a date, then we’ll be reaching out to get as much representation as possible from all the stakeholders or interested parties here on the West Coast. We would like to make sure that the Nations are part of that as well because it’s an important component,” he said.
Stere noted the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust’s recently published Vital Signs Report highlights transportation and inequality.
“You can see the inequalities around transportation in our region, so the importance of this can’t be underestimated,” he said.
He added that while branding might be costly, work will need to be done to raise awareness of the service locally.
“With an interim service, we want to be cautious about how much we’re investing into with the potential down the road, but we also want to ensure that this service is going to be utilized and is as effective as possible,” he said.
“I’d sure like to know in terms of branding how important that will be in terms of ensuring that that service is communicated and that people understand what we have going here on the West Coast.”
He added cashless technology should be kept in mind to set the program up for success.
“I don’t know many folks that carry cash nowadays, so we have to make sure that we’re utilizing whatever we can to ensure that this service is going to be used by all who may need to have access to it. I would strongly encourage we look at ways of incorporating whatever types of payment are going to be most effective for this service,” he said. “I look forward to getting a further update and I’m going to cross my fingers that April will be the start date for this service moving forward on the West Coast.”
During the ACRD’s Dec. 13 board meeting the following week, the board reviewed spending $175,000 ot its Growing Communities Fund funding towards bus stop and shelter construction for the West Coast transit program.
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