Flawed transit strategy strands rural residents

Written By Rob Shaw

Almost two dozen rural communities on Vancouver Island are facing the loss of their only inter-city bus service, as years of questionable policy decisions over small-town remote transit issues catch up to the metro-focused New Democrat government.

Wilson’s Transportation announced recently it was suspending its Island connector bus service due to heavy financial losses.

“We’ve just been bleeding [money] in the fall and the start of winter here,” president John Wilson told the Victoria Times Colonist.

Wilson’s provides the only reliable transit link between many of the Island’s 29 communities and 21 First Nations.

“We are very concerned about the safety of the people who rely on our service. Sadly, we have no other options,” Wilson said.

Transportation Minister Rob Fleming declined a request for an interview.

A familiar story

It’s a familiar story for small towns across the province, where residents rely on inter-city bus service as one of the only ways to make out-of-town medical appointments, visit family and shop.

When the service is curtailed, suspended, or cancelled outright by private bus companies — as has frequently happened in recent years — it puts people in the dangerous position of having to hitchhike or beg for rides in rural communities where cell-phone reception can be spotty at best, and non-existent at worst.

It puts people in the dangerous position of having to hitchhike or beg for rides in rural communities.

The collapse of services like Wilson’s can be directly traced back to decisions made in 2018 by the NDP government.

Back then, Greyhound was servicing bus routes across the province. But it was also losing $35,000 a day. It appealed to the NDP government for financial help on money-losing runs that were nonetheless critical to rural and remote communities in B.C.’s North and Interior. 

But New Democrats hated the idea of giving public money to a large multinational company like Greyhound. The party was ideologically and philosophically opposed to the proposal.

The NDP had a better plan: Stiff-arm Greyhound, let it die, and hope that local bus companies pick up the routes and figure out a way to make them viable.

Unmitigated failure

Four years later, let’s pronounce judgement on that strategy: It has been an unmitigated failure.

Local companies only picked up some of the most profitable routes, while other communities lost service entirely. Nobody would service the North. And the local success stories — like Wilson’s, which expanded — turned out to be short-lived.

The cold hard reality of most inter-city bus routes is this: Most need provincial government subsidies to be viable, especially during off-season months. And absent that funding, the government is going to have to run the routes itself.

The Province has been slow to realize this, blinded by its intense ideology.

The Province has been slow to realize this, blinded by its intense ideology.

Should the government have simply swallowed its pride and made a smarter decision with Greyhound before it collapsed? The argument against such a move was stated rather succinctly in the spring of 2018 by then Transportation Minister Claire Trevena.

“We did not want to be subsidizing a private operation, and that’s one of the reasons we didn’t want to be subsidizing Greyhound,” she said.

It’s a bit of a laughable sentiment four years later, when the NDP government has been forced to subsidize the heck out of numerous private operations anyway. 

Subsidies keep buses rolling

It gave more than $3.3 million to inter-city bus services on Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands alone in 2021, just to keep them running in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. That included $1.15 million to the routes now suspended by Wilson’s, because the provincial subsidies ended this month.

“We couldn’t afford to carry on in January and February continuing to lose the money at the rate we were losing it,” Wilson told the Times Colonist.

Wilson’s asked the Province for financial help. It’s still waiting for an answer.

Wilson’s asked the Province for financial help. It’s still waiting for an answer, as New Democrats continue to fumble and bumble this file toward the half-decade point.

There are few moves left on the table for the government.

If NDP partisans can’t stomach the idea of permanent public subsidies, the only remaining option is for government to run the routes itself.

That’s already playing out in B.C.’s North. When Greyhound collapsed, nobody stepped up to run service between Prince Rupert, Prince George, Dawson Creek, Fort St. John and communities in-between.

The Province had to create its own service called BC Bus North and has provided a $7.9 million grant to keep it and other northern transportation services running until 2025.

But it’s lost millions of dollars — but exactly how much appears to be a closely-held secret by New Democrats, who refused to provide the figures when specifically asked for this column.

Safe transport, a public service

No one is disputing the need for BC Bus North, which provides safe, reliable transportation to under-serviced communities on a stretch of Northern BC highway that has been the site of many missing and murdered Indigenous women. Its success can’t be measured by how much money it continues to lose annually.

But that’s the point. 

These inter-city bus routes aren’t about money. They are about providing safe transportation to and from small communities when critical goods and services are located elsewhere. 

It is, quite simply, a public service. Urbanites enjoy BC Transit, BC Ferries and TransLink to get around. Rural B.C. is stuck with fractured public transportation run largely by the private sector, overseen by a provincial government that is generally loath to help.

Nickel-and-diming Greyhound, or Wilson’s – or whomever else needs help to keep inter-city bus service going – is a flawed strategy. It was the wrong move four years ago. The NDP would be wise to reconsider, before things get worse.