Suspension of Vancouver Island intercity bus service prompts calls for a public option

Christine Brice, left, passed through Nanaimo Monday, on a bus trip from Ucluelet to Victoria. She hopes the B.C. government will step in to help Wilson's Transportation keep intercity bus services running year-round. (Claire Palmer/CBC - image credit)
Christine Brice, left, passed through Nanaimo Monday, on a bus trip from Ucluelet to Victoria. She hopes the B.C. government will step in to help Wilson's Transportation keep intercity bus services running year-round. (Claire Palmer/CBC - image credit)

As Vancouver Island is set to lose critical bus routes, parliamentarians and advocates are calling for all levels of government to appropriately fund intercity transit.

The Tofino Bus and Vancouver Island Connector — which connect communities and First Nations across the island — are set to be suspended until May due to low passenger numbers and revenue loss brought on by the COVID pandemic, according to Wilson's Transportation, which privately operates both services.

The bus routes will become seasonal and run from May until October going forward, according to CEO John Wilson.

This means residents of Tofino and Port Alberni, among other communities, will have to rely on cabs or hitchhiking to travel the island for most of the year, leading some to call for a public option.

"[The federal government] can't continue this piecemeal approach," said Gord Johns, the NDP MP for Courtenay-Alberni.

"Since we've lost Greyhound, we don't have national bus transportation.

"The minister needs to make a decision on ensuring that a private model works, or design a national public bus service."

Justin McElroy/CBC
Justin McElroy/CBC

According to a Transport Canada spokesperson, provinces have taken the lead in developing intercity bus routes, with the federal government providing some funding.

One example is B.C. Bus North, which stepped in to cover the northern half of the province after Greyhound Canada stopped operating in 2018.

Johns says that model is an "excellent" one, but that funding for the service remained short-term — lasting until 2026 — and the federal government should work on building long-term infrastructure.

"Right now, it's being studied at the Transport Committee," he told Kathryn Marlow, host of CBC's All Points West.

"What we're hearing from multiple witnesses is that … we need a national service or we need to provide funding for the private sector operators now."

In addition to B.C. Bus North, northern B.C. and the central Interior have also had other regional operators like Ebus step in after the departure of Greyhound.

 

Intercity transit a 'public good': resident

Johns says the suspension is particularly inequitable for seniors, youth, people with disabilities and low-income people.

Ryan Knighton, a writer and journalist who lives in Ucluelet, B.C., and has written extensively about his blindness, said that he first moved to the small community on the premise that there would be bus services there.

"We spent millions upgrading that highway, and then they took the bus away," he told Gregor Craigie, host of CBC's On The Island. "It seems like we're underwriting car ownership and not imagining a broader, more inclusive world."

Brandon Williamson, a Victoria resident originally from Port Alberni, says there is now no way for him to visit his family.

Williamson does not own a car, and says others like him living in B.C.'s expensive capital would be cut off.

"Having it private makes it very precarious," he said.

"If there's [a] profit motive, they can just shut down services and that just leaves a lot of people stranded."

Williamson says many Vancouver Island residents do not value the private bus service due to the cost and inconvenient schedule, and because, he says, it is designed for tourists, not residents.

"I do think that this is a public service … a public good," he said. "If you could make it public, you could actually make it more affordable. You could make it more reliable."

Williamson adds that the suspension would lead some to "dangerous" situations like hitchhiking.

Johns agrees it is "a huge safety issue."

"When we look at the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, it was explicit that women, girls and two-spirit LGBTQ+ people have been forced to hitchhike.

"This [suspension] puts them at a huge risk."

Michael Wilson/CBC
Michael Wilson/CBC

Transport minister shuns 'one-size-fits all' approach

A spokesperson for Transport Canada said the federal government is investing $14.9 billion on public transport projects, including $3 billion annually in "permanent" transit projects starting in 2026.

The spokesperson said Transport Minister Omar Alghabra wrote to colleagues in July 2021 asking them to identify ways to support intercity buses.

"This work reinforced the unique local needs, tailored regional approaches adopted by provinces and territories, and the potential real risks and drawbacks to advancing a one-size-fits-all or national approach," they said in a statement.

According to the spokesperson, the federal Transport Committee continues to study the issue, and will produce a report at the conclusion of their research.

The provincial Ministry of Transportation said the province had provided $6.2 million to intercity bus operators in 2021-22.

"Where unmet transportation needs are identified, we will work with our partners and the federal government to identify solutions," it said in a statement.