Improved public transit wanted in the West Kootenay

Better bus service from Nelson to Trail topped the wish list of local interest groups in a transportation-focused webinar on February 17.

Attendees at the webinar, hosted by the West Kootenay Climate Hub, said people need expanded and more reliable bus service, especially to get to the main regional hospital in Trail. It currently takes up to three transfers to get there from Nelson.

“That’s a lot of transferring for someone who doesn’t feel well,” said Pegasis McGauley, a director on the BC Rural Health Network’s board.

The proposal for the route would have only a single stop at Playmor Junction to pick up Slocan Valley transfers.

“Many different groups of people in our area are affected by sub-par transport,” event host Tia Currie said. “Better transit makes for healthier individuals, communities and contributes to overall climate health.”

While carbon emission reduction got a cursory mention at the session, local needs in accessing health care and bus service for students dominated the conversation.

Currie is one of those students. As a daily rider from Trail to Selkirk College in Castlegar, she said she is lucky to get a seat, and the bus schedule leaves her in Castlegar for 10 hours when she only has four hours of classes.

Getting around the West Kootenay region without a reliable car is even more difficult if the bus doesn’t show up when it is supposed to. Tom Dool of the RDCK told webinar attendees that West Kootenay Transit buses would be back to pre-COVID staffing levels within six weeks.

“That means we won’t be missing any other buses due to driver shortages,” he said.

NextGen, the contractor providing the regional transit service, has succeeded in finding new drivers despite a 1.6% unemployment rate in the local transportation and warehousing sector.

During the pandemic, NextGen couldn’t retain staff and only had about two-thirds of the needed drivers working.

Still, travel by public transportation to destinations outside the West Kootenay is difficult, and many people need to get to Kelowna or beyond to access the expanded healthcare services available there.

Keith Wiley, the founder of the Nelson and Area Action Group for Better Public Transportation, said that people deserve the dignity to be able to see their families or get to the hospital at a reasonable cost. His group, along with similar national and provincial groups, formed to advocate for coast-to-coast public transportation.

Wiley also focused on the potential for reducing carbon emissions by expanding public transportation. He said he didn’t think electric vehicles would be the overall answer due to their cost. Electric buses, on the other hand, are something he wants to see in the RDCK soon.

BC Transit is already testing electric buses in the Lower Mainland and the Okanagan, and Dool said he thought this region would be a perfect rural pilot area, but that it would be up to BC Transit to decide who gets them next.

The next webinar in the series will be at noon on March 17 and will focus on efforts to provide better habitat in local communities for pollinators such as birds and bees.

Mark Page, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice