BC Transit has frozen any spending on new transit projects across the province for the next three years. A representative of BC Transit made this announcement at a recent meeting of the Kootenay Regional Transit Committee.
“It was a big surprise,” says Hans Cunningham, who is the RDCK director for the rural Salmo area and a member of the transit committee.
“It is an impossible situation,” he said. “In Salmo we are quite willing to pay our share. We have been standing there with cash in hand but there is no bus coming, and from the looks of it there is not going to be.”
In addition to bus service to Salmo, the funding freeze would postpone a number of plans that have been contemplated for the West Kootenay for the next few years including reinstatement of service to Perrier Road, Sunday service in Nelson, 30-minute service on all runs in Nelson, additional runs on the connector to Castlegar and Trail, and more runs up the Slocan Valley.
Castlegar mayor Lawrence Chernoff, the head of the regional transit committee, says such a spending freeze could result in cuts to existing service because of inflation and cost increases over time.
“For 2016-17, we will be locked into 2015 dollars,” he said.
The regional transit committee is a Regional District of Central Kootenay body with members from rural areas and municipal governments in the region. B.C. Transit is the provincial government body that funds about half the cost of transit in B.C. It coordinates transit systems and provides transit expertise to local governments.
Asked by the Star for the reasons for the three year freeze, BC Transit spokesperson Meribeth Burton replied with a brief email.
“As funding levels are forecast to remain relatively flat over the term of the plan (three years), requests for expanded transit budgets cannot be accommodated,” she wrote.
According to Chernoff, BC Transit controls the system to the point that if a local municipality or regional district decided to do something on its own, self-funded—buy a bus, for example, or even add a few more runs to a route—it could not be done without the permission of B.C. Transit.
In fact, at a meeting of stakeholder groups in Nelson recently, when local transit advocate Barry Nelson suggested that the city could perhaps fund Sunday bus service on its own very cheaply, BC Transit’s Dan Pizarro responded that the city would have to buy its own bus if it were to provide that extra service.
In the meantime, the Ministry of Transportation has just announced BC On The Move, a ten-year transportation plan for the province. Included in the plan’s list of priorities is a $312 million investment in transit in the province over the next three years.
This would seem like a contradict the province’s withdrawal of money from BC Transit. But not really.
As it turns out, according to Sonia Lowe at the Ministry of Transportation, that $312 million is not actually new money at all, but will represent the government’s full operating grant to BC Transit for those upcoming three years. For the previous three years BC Transit got $290 million, so BC On The Move represents a 6 per cent increase to BC Transit’s funding province-wide over three years.
Mayor Deb Kozak of Nelson has responded to the announcement of the transit funding freeze with a call for a task force to create a Columbia Basin-wide transportation strategy.
“I reflected on Tom Rand’s remarks,” she said, referring to a recent talk in Nelson by the climate change author, “about embracing the new economy and investing in clean energy systems. We could be on the cutting edge of making that wheel turn and those changes begin with how we invest in modes of transportation.”