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Where is that regional transit Squamish has been waiting for?

All the local governments are on board, but the buses are stalled over funding.
Squamish's Mayor Karen Elliott describes the current state of talks with the provincial government over regional transit as being in "stand-by mode." 

"It is taking longer than I have ever hoped, but I also feel like we are closer than we have been before," Elliott said. 

District staff have been in touch with the provincial Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, she said, and understand that the province will reach back out when ready to re-engage on regional transit. 

The provincial election and the pandemic have caused delays, she noted. 

Priorities shifted, and the provincial government cancelled all transit expansions last year due to the pandemic. 

"In that environment, we were certainly not going to achieve regional transit in 2020, but that doesn't mean that we haven't been having the conversations." 

At one point, the hope among Sea to Sky Corridor government leaders was to have regional transit by fall 2019.

That date, of course, came and went.

Is transit by fall of 2021 possible and what is the holdup? 

Elliott told The Chief she knows there is support for regional transit at the provincial level, but funding is the sticking point. 

"It does come down to how we fund a regional transit system, and we have been proposing a motor fuel tax, as a way to supplement property tax and the provincial funding that comes into play," said Elliott, adding that local governments have limited ways to pay for a transit system — property tax and fares.

"The province has many, many more options they could use," Elliott said. 

The provincial government told the corridor's regional transit committee it didn't want to go the motor fuel tax route. 

Elliott said there was a review of the fuel prices in Squamish at the time, and so she questioned the timing of the province's hesitancy to go ahead. 

"That work is finished. We can see the consumer in the Sea to Sky is paying way more than they should be .... so, we still believe a three or four cent motor fuel tax could be absorbed into the gas prices in the corridor," she said. "We did go to the province and say we would like to use a combination of the provincial-local government formula, plus a motor fuel tax, to ensure we can launch a robust service from the beginning that would attract ridership and get people connected from Pemberton down through the Lower Mainland. They said no." 

Still, Elliott remains hopeful a solution can be found. 

Elliott noted what is different this time around — in terms of negotiating with this provincial government — is that the Sea to Sky's transportation needs are noted in Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Heyman's mandate letter

The letter, which lays out the elected term's priorities, reads: "Reduce congestion and make transit an option for more people by working with TransLink to improve and expand the network for people living in the Fraser Valley and Sea-to-Sky regions." 

Elliott noted that another part of the letter says a priority of the minister is to: "Work with the Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure to integrate TransLink and BC Transit services."

She said she is encouraged by these declarations.

"We are going to get our [local government] committee back together as soon as we can," she said. 

"We are ready to pick this ball up and run with it, now that we can see ourselves reflected in the mandate letter."

Responsive Record - Letter to MOT From Regional Transit Committee by Jennifer Thuncher on Scribd

FOI documents

Through a freedom of information request to the District of Squamish, The Chief received a letter sent June 19, 2019, to then-minister of transportation and infrastructure, Claire Trevena, that shows the local governments were willing to go other funding routes as well. 

The letter is from members of the Sea to Sky Regional Transportation Committee. 

The committee includes representatives from the Squamish Nation, Lil'wat Nation, District of Squamish, Resort Municipality of Whistler, Village of Pemberton, Squamish Lillooet Regional District, and representatives from BC Transit. 

The letter came after a meeting with the provincial government on May 30, 2019. 

It alludes to the province not accepting the proposal of a motor fuel tax. 

"We are aware and appreciative that you remain a champion for regional transit in the Sea to Sky Corridor. It is, however, unfortunate that the decision to eliminate use of the motor fuel tax is hampering the efforts of the local governments and First Nations to deliver regional transit to the Sea to Sky as it is a viable model, one based on precedent in other places in the province." 

In the letter, the committee says that the motor fuel tax is not meant to be a long-term solution, but is a short-term way to jump-start the bus system. 

The letter goes on to say that the province has now asked that the committee come up with "creative" solutions to fund transit. 

"We believe a model can be developed, but ask that the province come to the table with some creative options of their own," the committee said. "We are open-minded and willing to consider funding from any source the province can implement, including, but not limited to a motor fuel tax, carbon tax, cannabis revenue sharing, or some other dedicated tax earmarked for regional transit across the province." 

Lesser options floated

A meeting summary from July 22, 2019, that The Chief obtained through an FOI request to the Village of Pemberton shows that another option floated by BC Transit was to launch individual routes, but not an entire regional transit system. 

Elliott said that was a band-aid solution. 

"We didn't feel that just launching one or two buses from Squamish to the Lower Mainland was the right thing to do — or one bus or two up to Whistler, or just relying on private operators."


Ministry response

For its part, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure told The Chief in a statement that over the last five years, BC Transit "has worked closely with local partners along the Sea to Sky corridor, undertaking extensive public engagement to develop options for regional transit services between Metro Vancouver and Pemberton, and on to Mount Currie. 

We have worked with local partners to develop a number of funding options for consideration."

Asked how much of a priority regional transit is for the government, the ministry said: 

"Our government is committed to making life more affordable and improving the services people rely on — and a good transit system that meets people's transportation needs is essential to achieving these goals."

Asked about the mandate letter, the ministry said it directs Heyman to "reduce congestion and make transit an option for more people" by working with TransLink to improve and expand the network for people living in the Fraser Valley and Sea-to-Sky regions.

Communities along the Sea to Sky Corridor each have robust local transit systems, the ministry said. 

"There are private operators that offer service within this corridor, including the Squamish Connector, which has resumed service following a suspension due to COVID-19."

The province recently provided Safe Restart relief funding to a number of private operators, including those operating in the Sea to Sky region, the ministry spokesperson noted. 

On March 30, the government announced a one-time investment of $6.2 million to a number of inter-city bus operators.

"The province is supporting regional transportation through these grants, including the Squamish Connector, which provides commuter service from Squamish to Vancouver."

Another of the grant recipients, Universal Coach, operator of the Skylynx Shuttle, also had an amendment to its license approved by the Passenger Transportation Board to allow for picking up passengers in Squamish for travel to Whistler.

Elliott said that depending on private operators for regional transit came up in discussions with the province and BC Transit before, but that option doesn't meet the transit committee's goal. 

"We had an objective as a committee to really provide affordable regional transit to the entire corridor, including First Nations communities. That was really important to us," she said. "In order to do that, we thought that a piecemeal approach to this was not sustainable and we actually have a history of that. There used to be transit between Whistler and Squamish and when Whistler pulled their share of the agreement out, we couldn't continue to fund the system on our own."

She said the committee feels strongly that the system and funding put in place have to be strategic, cohesive and well thought through, and sustainable for the future. 

She added that private operators can't seem to survive on charging a fare that is affordable for all riders. 

"We are expected to grow in this corridor over the coming years, and there needs to be a well thought out, well planned, and sustainably funded system to support that growth."

Asked how much it would cost to provide six buses going up and down the Sea to Sky Corridor, the ministry said the cost of this project has not yet been finalized, but pointed The Chief to preliminary costs that were published in the 2017 Sea to Sky Regional Corridor Study

In that study, the proposal would cost $3,310,000 with a local cost of $1,900,000 shared between all participating local partners. 

This would provide approximately six round trips on weekdays and four round trips on weekend days along the Whistler, Squamish, and Metro Vancouver segment, and an additional two daily round trips between the Pemberton area and Whistler. 

"We know the government spent billions upgrading the highway for the Olympics, but this highway is already starting to fail on weekends, in these busy times when people are visiting the corridor," Elliott said. 

"I don't want to see them spend billions more on the highway. I would just like to see them enable us through a form of taxation... or a different funding model that we can come up with as our conversations move forward that takes cars off the road and allows visitors to come up here." 

The ministry said it "continues to engage with all stakeholders on a regular basis on this issue," but did not provide any upcoming dates for meetings.

COVID factor

Elliott said regional transit should be part of any recovery plan for the corridor.

"Transit is absolutely part of economic recovery from the pandemic. I believe that once we have folks vaccinated and we are enabling more travel, we will be able to show the visitation and the cars on the highway and issues that we can address through transit in the future," she said. 

"We will be working so hard this year to get this funded as soon as possible. I think it can happen." 

What can Squamish folks do?

Elliott encouraged citizens in the corridor to write to the provincial Minister of Transportation and Minister of Environment

"And let them know just how important regional transit is. I would love for them to get hundreds of letters on this issue... the voices of our citizens matter tremendously in this."

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