It’s overcast in the Alberni Valley as a few people mill about the bus stop just off the corner of Johnston Road and Gertrude Street.
A River Road transit bus turns the corner off Johnston Road, trundles along and pulls to a stop before opening its door.
All the passengers greet bus driver Ben Bakker and chat with other passengers already aboard before the bus departs.
The scene will play itself out more than a 100 times over the course of a day, and thousands of times over the year.
Unbeknownst to passengers, transit service in Port Alberni has reached a milestone.
It was 40 years ago in May that that B.C. launched the Port Alberni transit system.
Transit service has come a long way in the Valley since its humble beginnings.
There are challenges to running a transit company in a small town. “But Port Alberni is still one of the best places to be,” Diversified Transportation manager Phil Atkinson said.
Atkinson assumed the manager’s position in 2008 when Diversified took over the running of local transit services from Western Bus Lines.
The move saw Western and the local handyDART merge under one umbrella to deliver transit service in the Valley.
Tyee Bus Company operated a bus service in Port Alberni until 1971 when Western Bus Line owner Lyn McLeod bought them out, and operated until 2008.
Originally from Nova Scotia, Atkinson came to Port Alberni in 1973 but left again.
He worked as an operations manager with Kamloops Transit until an opportunity arose to take over the handyDART operation in Port Alberni.
Atkinson operated the service through his company, P&A Transit, from 2003-2008, then was hired as a manager with Diversified.
On why he came to Port Alberni from a secure job in Kamloops, Atkinson said “I always enjoyed Port Alberni and the people here so when the opportunity came up I wasn’t going to let it pass by.”
Transit service in Port Alberni goes back to before the First World War.
Veteran driver Cam McKinnon said there was a Jitney that operated between Alberni and Port for 10 cents a ride.
A more “modern” service started up a few years later. “There was a guy who came back from the war, bought a large vehicle and ran a bus service between Port and Alberni,” Atkinson said.
Ridership numbers, operating costs and budget constraints make operating a transit service in a small town a challenge, Atkinson said.
“We try and provide the best service to the most area that we can with what we have,” he said.
Atkinson has noted a few changes over the years.
“The transit authority in Victoria used to have only two staff people,” Atkinson said.
“Today there are dozens who work for BC Transit.”
The greatest change though is in the way of equipment.
“One of the biggest changes I’ve seen has been in the technology,” he said.
McKinnon agreed with Atkinson.
“When I first started driving 32 years ago the coin boxes we used were in museums in other places,” he said.
“And back then we even used to make change for people.”
McKinnon, 62, moved here with his family in 1958 and graduated from high school in Port Alberni.
He was a truck driver before accepting a temporary bus driver’s job in July of 1979.
“I was between trucking jobs so it was perfect and here I am 32 years later,” McKinnon said.“It turned out to be the best career choice I ever made.”
There were two buses and two routes when McKinnon started: River Road and Ian Avenue.
There was a service expansion in 1980 in which the fleet was expanded to four buses.
In 1983 the economy flatlined and the number of routes was reduced to three plus evening service, where it still stands today.
Operating costs have risen with the years, McKinnon said.
Fuel was 22 cents per litre and now it’s $1.20 per litre.
Adults paid 25 cents and students and seniors paid 15 cents for their bus fares.
Now each pays $1.75 and $1.50 respectively.
McKinnon has seen a lot of change in transit service over the years, and all of it is for the better, he said.
In 1979, low floor buses were added to allow people with mobility issues access to regular transit.
Electronic fare boxes were added which now record information about route usage and fair types and help with planning.
The town went through a rough patch economically, and ridership dipped through the years.
“I think we’re No. 6 out of 81 transit systems in the province now,” McKinnon said.
Rider demographic has changed little over the years and is still made up of kids, students, and the elderly.
“There’s not as many working people riding the bus as there used to be,” McKinnon said.
And Port Alberni remains a safe place for a bus driver to work.
“There’s never been an incident in my 32 years,” he said.
“We don’t have the violence a place like Vancouver has.”
There are a host of people who regularly take the bus and McKinnon recited their names: Howard Dick, Clotilda Gus, Bertha Gus, and the late Joe Ecklund.
“Five generations of the Tatoosh family have ridden the bus since I’ve been driving,” McKinnon said.
“I’ve watched kids grow up too.”
When he first started driving, McKinnon was the Young Turk among veteran drivers, all of whom he remembers:
Angelo Stella, Gordy Fraser, Scotty Alexander, Bernie Crow, Blake McMurray, Harold Dixon, Brian Dixon.
“I’m the last one left from that era,” McKinnon said.
McKinnon has come full circle and is now the veteran among young drivers.
“Sometimes it gets lonely, when I think about it,” he said.
“But things don’t stay the same forever.”