Bus issue 'not going away'

Chelsea Powrie

It's been almost four months since Greyhound bus services took their leave from communities around B.C., and while more than 80 per cent of their routes have been taken over by private companies or new provincial services, the South Okanagan-Similkameen is still feeling stranded. 

Manfred Bauer, mayor of Keremeos, said it is an issue of ongoing discussion amongst community mayors and local First Nations, and that they feel cut off from the coast. 

"It is something that is of concern to us in the Similkameen Valley because we know the people who need the service, and we also know that the handyDART service has been used more than ever before," Bauer said. 

A handyDART service runs three times a week from Princeton to Penticton, picking up at communities along the way. But MLA for Boundary-Similkameen Linda Larson said that's the perfect example of how the loss of daily, dependable bus services doesn't work for her constituents — especially given the high number of seniors in rural B.C. who need access to large centres like Vancouver and Kelowna for medical appointments. 

"If you've got to go to something, you're looking at planning weeks in advance how you're going to get there and how you're going to get back, and most of the time you're going to have to overnight," Larson said. "So it's increased the cost of moving about in rural British Columbia."

She said the 2019/2020 B.C. Budget, released Tuesday, has a disturbing lack of specific plans to address the gap in services in the area. 

The budget does include a line indicating $21 million will be spent over three years "to improve conventional bus services in over 30 communities around the province, including improvements to handyDART in both rural and urban settings," but Bauer said Similkameen leaders are left wondering whether that could apply to them. 

"We have not been in contact about this yet, we don't know what that means. Can we apply? Does it mean we can expand the service that is in place?" he said, adding that he and other local leaders have been brainstorming possible routes for buses to connect with coast routes through Merritt or Hope. "We want to meet with the Minister [of Transportation] again hopefully in May when the legislature sits."

But even expansion to handyDART services may not be enough to address larger needs of the area. Larson said she plans to continue the fight in parliament for a permanent long-haul bus replacement, and added that other members of the rural caucus have the same concerns about their own ridings. 

"We're doing responses to the budget speech right now and everybody that has stood up has mentioned transportation in rural British Columbia," she said. "It's ongoing. It's not going to go away."

The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure did not respond to a request to comment by publication deadline. 

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