Wednesday, July 24, 2024
July 24, 2024

LCC considers bus service expansion

Despite an unclear timeline, the future of bus service on Salt Spring is both to grow and to “go electric,” according to BC Transit officials — but how soon those things happen lies in establishing funding schemes and infrastructure. 

That message came in broad comments delivered by senior government relations manager Seth Wright Thursday, June 20, as Salt Spring’s Local Community Commission (LCC) received a presentation on the past, present and future for the provincial transit authority’s presence here, on a modest system Wright described as performing “exceptionally” above its peers. 

“This is something that, historically, Salt Spring has always been able to take some pride in,” said Wright. “And that continues to be the case.” 

Salt Spring’s bus system still punches above its weight for a “small community transit system,” he said, in part because of rider habits but also due to historically low operating costs. Wright presented several recommendations for transit expansion in coming years, notably including a plan for additional service on Route 2 — the Fulford-to-Ganges service that represents roughly half of all rider numbers on Salt Spring. 

Any potential expansion comes at a cost into six figures, according to presentation documents. Capital Regional District (CRD) director and LCC member Gary Holman joined other commissioners in expressing concerns over the price tag, even as all agreed the system was oversubscribed by an amount that may be greater than calculated — from potential riders who don’t even consider riding the bus due to that under-servicing. 

Back in March, Wright had brought the LCC startling data surrounding increasing numbers of “pass-ups” on Route 2, as drivers tallied a rise in the number of people who were waiting along the road hoping to catch the bus but were thwarted by it being fully occupied. 

And even as Wright on Thursday reported the happy news that Salt Spring ridership has returned to 100 per cent of its pre-pandemic numbers, Holman warned of what he saw as the “other shoe” dropping on the island come 2025: a likely need for increasing the tax requisition. 

“We haven’t had, really, a sustainable requisition,” Holman said. “We basically exhausted our operating reserve, in part because of Covid and all of that ridership going down.” 

“So we’ll be facing a cost increase from BC Transit — to be confirmed,” he continued, noting plans had not been finalized. “And we already need an increase just to get our current requisition sustainable. And then added on to that would be the cost of improved service.” 

Any decision to expand service — on the Fulford route, or on any others under consideration by the LCC, such as the Beddis Road or Ruckle Park routes — would need to be received by Sept. 20, Wright said, in order to be included in BC Transit’s proposals to the province. 

“Salt Spring has been one of the most affordable transit systems, when you look at operating dollars for service,” said Wright. “But as we face the affordability crisis, our operating company on Salt Spring has identified there are some significant ‘pinch points’ and they need to allocate more resources — for supporting the administration of the transit system, supervision of the service and being able to respond to emerging issues.” 

Such costs have been on the increase across B.C. and indeed North America, Wright said, within the transportation industry. But, he said, increasing funding would also ensure future reliability and being able to pay drivers a living wage. And all that, he suggested, should start on the Fulford-Ganges route, where scheduling is currently driven by the BC Ferries schedule. 

“There is a bus for every ferry,” said Wright. “This additional service would add extra trips that would not be aligned to the ferries — and that would guarantee greater access to service for local residents.” 

That bus fills up at peak in both directions, according to ridership data — “And no one wants to plan to get on a crowded bus,” said Wright. 

And while his analysis suggested those ferry-aligned trips would continue to represent the highest ridership numbers, over time people who used the system regularly would adjust. 

“If you know there’s a bus after the ferry bus, you’re going to plan to take that one,” said Wright. “Behaviour changes, and after some time it balances out a little bit. I think it will benefit the community.” 

Ultimately, according to Wright, the better solution would be bigger buses serving the route — but without suitable space for them to turn around in Fulford, BC Transit can’t make plans in that direction. 

“BC Ferries does have a capital vision and a detailed plan to move that forward, but there’s a number of steps,” said Wright. “Their capital budget is combined with their operating budget; that means that they don’t have any certainty until they have extra operating money they can use on capital projects.” 

Wright also said when BC Ferries moves to additional ferries not only on the Vesuvius Bay route but also at Fulford, that will help with bus scheduling. 

“Right now we have to build our schedule very tightly around the ferry,” said Wright. “But if eventually they run often enough that we can just put a bus down there every hour and make it so people never have to wait more than half an hour for that connection, that will enable us to build more flexible schedules.” 

Asked about a timeline for the local fleet’s electrification — particularly relevant as commissioners consider significant plans for a new bus depot and maintenance yard at CRD-owned land on Kanaka Road — Wright was vague, if optimistic.  

“I have passionately and vigorously waved my arms every time there are conversations about this,” chuckled Wright, “and said that Salt Spring is very interested in the introduction of battery-electric buses and would be keen to do that.” 

But the current bus storage area on the island — an unfenced gravel yard behind the Community Gospel Chapel on Vesuvius Bay Road — is “very suboptimal.” 

“We’d like a proper paved and fenced facility for safety, security and maintenance reasons,” said Wright. “But also that [level of infrastructure] enables battery-electric buses, and the sequence is based on the ability to install infrastructure. So proceeding with that capital project on your end will enable you to move forward with that.”  

Discussion of Kanaka Road plans — currently in the conceptual stage, envisioning a combined facility for bus depot and park maintenance uses — was planned for June 20 but postponed as an in-camera discussion on potential legal issues took much of the afternoon’s allotted time.  

While funding for a bus service expansion would likely come from a combination of user fees and local taxes, a staff report prepared for the meeting noted the Kanaka Road project would likely be completed through a combination of grants, capital reserves and Community Works funding — what used to be called “gas tax” monies, as that fund was originally built from federal gasoline excise taxes, allocated to local governments based on a jurisdiction’s population.  

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