News that Tofino Bus has put its West Coast route on hold has officials scrambling to find transportation for those heading in and out of the Tofino-Ucluelet region.
Citing decreasing ridership and increasing costs, Wilson’s Transportation has cancelled service to Tofino-Ucluelet until May.
“We had to suspend service because essentially after about September, the passenger count just dropped so drastically that we could not cover the operational expenses,” the company’s brand manager Samantha Wilson-Newton told Victoria News. “We can’t afford to operate the service at a loss over the winter months so we’ve decided to pause the service until May of 2023 when we know, historically, that the passenger counts increase and we are able to operate again.”
Tofino mayor Dan Law told the Westerly News the announcement was “devastating,” adding that many West Coast residents rely on the bus for essential travel.
“The reality is that without this kind of transportation, people are not going to be able to access essential medical services, government services, court services, you name it. Some people in our community, especially the most vulnerable, will be prevented from accessing needed services and that is ultimately a government issue,” Law said.
“It’s going to be devastating for many of our community members who rely on the bus to get in and out of town…I understand that it’s a business and businesses can’t be expected to run at a loss, but this is something that has to be addressed.”
He said he hopes the provincial government will step in with a solution while Tofino Bus is on hiatus.
“The government has shown they’re ready and able to reach new challenges, we’ve seen that throughout the pandemic and I think this is one time that the government would probably do well to look at the situation and realize that without some form of readily accessible, reasonably affordable public transportation, people are going to suffer and they are not going to be able to access minimal standards of essential services,” he said.
“The question is, what kind of assistance can the government be expected to provide? It’s a very delicate issue, but the bottom line is everybody on the West Coast needs transportation one way or the other. Not everybody has the ability to own their own vehicle and drive out of town, that’s just the way it is. Something has to change. Some kind of public transportation has to materialize or people are going to be left in a very dire situation.”
Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns told the Westerly the federal government needs to be ready to support the province to establish service.
“We need the federal government to quickly work with the province to get this route up and running immediately. This service needs to be restored immediately and, in the long term, they need to provide either funding for the private sector to run a service in various different pockets of the country, or create a national bus service; one or the other. They can’t just let it happen that these routes get shut down,” he said.
“It’s going to erode rural and remote communities and it’s not fair. These are mobility rights, it’s about quality of life for rural people, rural people that are constantly shovelling buckets of money to Ottawa and not getting their fair share back. Wealth starts in rural communities and it leaves rural communities and it’s unacceptable, especially when safety and quality of life is at stake.”
Johns said he spoke with Mid Island - Pacific Rim MLA Josie Osborne as well as Wilson Transportation CEO John Wilson to discuss how the provincial and federal governments can work together on both a short-term and long-term strategy to keep routes open.
“Wilson’s has made it clear for a long time that they can’t afford to run these routes and lose more money. They bled a lot through COVID and they just simply aren’t going to recover in the short-term and they can’t afford to subsidize it,” he said.
“The province can’t continue to shoulder all of this. They need a federal partner. The federal government, jurisdictionally, is downloading again and it’s unacceptable. They need to take leadership here.”
Johns is calling on the federal government to better support private bus companies.
“They need direct funding that’s carved out and allocated for the private sector so they can operate these routes that are in jeopardy and under threat,” he said. “They’re playing a critical and pivotal role in connecting communities, in fact the government is kind of relying on the private sector without supporting them…They’re offering really hundreds of thousands of kilometres in non subsidized routes and really are the only mode of transportation in rural communities.”
He noted that the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls includes “the need for more frequent and accessible transportation services available to Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQ people.”
“This is absolutely outlined, it’s crystal clear,” he said.
MLA Josie Osborne told the Westerly she was “very disappointed” to hear the bus service has been temporarily lost.
“For some folks, this is about affordable, reliable, safe transportation, for other folks I’m hearing about how they’ve made a decision not to own a car because they want to do more climate action and this is a real blow to those goals,” she said.
“I know that the province and ministry of transportation understands very well the impacts and we know just how much people living in rural communities need safe, reliable, dependable, affordable transportation to get to bigger cities.”
She said the province is working with Wilson’s Transportation to find a workable solution, but agreed with Johns that a more permanent solution is needed as well.
“I know that this is having a big impact on people who live on the West Coast because I’m hearing directly from them,” she said. “I encourage your readers to reach out directly to my office. I want to hear their stories, I want to understand the changes that this means for them and then be able to advocate on people’s behalf.”
She noted the provincial and federal governments collaborated with First Nations communities to support the Highway 16 Transportation Action Plan in 2017 for Northern B.C. residents.
“Obviously, financial decisions at the provincial level do take a little bit of time. We have to undertake the right process for responsible management of public money, but we know just how urgent this is and how important it is to get this service back up and running and that’s why it’s really important that the ministry does this work that they’re doing with Wilson’s right now,” she said. “In terms of a longer term solution, partnerships and collaboration will be just so important.”
Ucluelet mayor Marilyn McEwen noted the news came as a double-whammy as the West Coast was supposed to have a BC Transit service in place between Tofino and Ucluelet by now, but the provincial government pulled out of its funding commitment in September.
“I was really, really looking forward to that and it seems like it’s not a possibility any longer,” she said. “It’s probably an issue for a lot of rural and remote communities, but it just seems like the West Coast is getting hit really hard with this issue right now…Transportation has been on the forefront lately.”
READ MORE: BC Transit plan stalls in Tofino-Ucluelet
She added the Alberni Clayoquot Regional District’s West Coast committee is currently working with a consultant on a strategy for West Coast transit options.
“There is some work being done because we can’t just sit by and watch this happen to us,” she said. “Part of the problem is the communication process. The transportation companies are not really engaging with the community prior to just announcing their departure…There needs to be more community engagement and more communication.”