With the province moving into Phase 3 of COVID-19 reopenings, the District of Squamish may resume its free summer weekend bus program this year.
On June 23, council voted unanimously in favour of starting up the program, so long as certain conditions are met by late July.
“I do think it is an important part of both our economic recovery and just general access to transit,” said Coun. Jenna Stoner. “I think moving towards more free access to transit is a good thing.”
Council agreed free rides will happen this summer if the provincial government moved to Phase 3 of reopening and should BC Transit allow for bus ridership to increase to two-thirds of normal capacity.
Due to the pandemic, seating was reduced to 40% to ensure physical distancing was maintained.
On June 24, Premier John Horgan announced that the province was moving to Phase 3.
District staff told The Chief that the municipality will still hold off on providing free bus rides until BC Transit increases its capacity to two-thirds — something which it has yet to announce.
BC Transit issued a statement to The Chief that said it would be “gradually increasing capacity,” but it did not mention when or if it would reach the two-third threshold established by the District of Squamish.
Nevertheless, elected officials expressed support for free rides, should the municipality’s criteria be fulfilled.
“I think this is the right direction to go to help encourage ridership recovery,” said Mayor Karen Elliott.
“I think we do have to work hard to build confidence back in the system and show that the measures can work. Our staff are keeping track of where our cash flow sits in terms of this. [It’s] a small expense, but we know from other presentations that we’re also losing fees elsewhere in the District. So, I think this is a good decision.”
Dora Gunn, a sustainability co-ordinator with the District, said that free rides will cost the municipality about $7,000 this year.
She also noted that the Sea to Sky Gondola, which contributed cash to the program in previous years, will not be providing funding this time.
Ridership rates have fluctuated between 33% to 40%.
For weekend trips, Gunn said that from May 1 to June 1 ridership hit maximums of 40%.
Rides fell dramatically in the early stages of the pandemic, but started to gradually increase over time. However, there was a second drop in ridership after fare charges were re-introduced after having been stopped.
In mid-March, BC Transit paused collecting fares and asked people to enter through rear doors in order to ensure physical distancing. Fare collection and front-door boarding was resumed in town on June 15 after barriers were installed on buses to keep drivers safe.