News that the Island’s ground transportation service—the Vancouver Island Connector—will not be resuming service this month has left a void in remote Vancouver Island communities.
On a service update posted to its website, Wilson’s Transportation said the Connector, along with the Tofino Bus, will remain suspended until further notice.
“Due to COVID-19, work and travel restrictions, revenue on these routes has been down 95 per cent since March 2020. While the Tofino Bus intercity bus service provides the same essential service as public transit, as a privately-owned company without any government subsidies, it depends on ticket sales to cover all costs.”
The company noted it has asked for a one-year emergency COVID-19 recovery contract from the Ministry of Transportation to cover operation costs for the Tofino Bus and allow it to resume the service, but it has not yet been successful.
After hearing the news, Port Alberni resident and former City of Port Alberni councillor Chris Alemany sent a letter to the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District (ACRD) board, encouraging the district to take a leading role in connecting Port Alberni and the West Coast with the rest of the Island with regular bus service.
“If COVID relief funding can go toward this initiative I think it would be a very appropriate use of it to get it off the ground quickly,” he noted in his letter. “This is not something that can wait for months and years of planning and consultation. In the long term I see it as an economic driver for tourism as well as the social and economic well-being of our population in general.”
During a board meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 10, the ACRD board agreed to invite Wilson’s Transportation to a future board meeting to discuss the future of bus service in the regional district.
In a later interview, Alemany said the problem has been a long time coming.
“Privatized bus services have been diminishing for a really long time—decades, really,” he said. “The pandemic has exacerbated their issues.”
Although COVID-19 has reduced the number of people taking the bus, said Alemany, the service still has customers.
“People need to get around,” he said. “They need to be able to get to their health appointments, to see their family. Even with COVID, people still need to go shopping. Unfortunately, it’s really difficult to get around Vancouver Island without a car.”
Alemany has been using the Regional District of Nanaimo’s bus service for the past 10-15 years to commute to and from work. However, there is still no public bus service connecting Port Alberni to the east coast of the Island.
“I see many people hitchhiking on Highway 4,” he said. “There are people who hitchhike everyday. That’s not safe, and it’s not equitable.”
Dr. Judith Sayers, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC) president, says that that suspension of the bus service is “concerning” for Nuu-chah-nulth people.
“It’s an essential service,” she said. “It’s critical to get our communities from place to place. We worry about people’s ability to get around. We worry about the safety of our women on the roads, because a lot of them hitchhike.”
The news comes at the same time as a few groups on Vancouver Island are hanging red dresses at prominent locations to raise awareness about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Sayers noted that the Vancouver Island Connector serves 21 First Nations communities on the Island. The NTC provides support and services for 14 nations, with about 10,000 members.
“One of our biggest concerns is if the bus service goes down, will there be anyone to step in to provide that service again?” Sayers wondered. “People aren’t taking the bus right now because of COVID, but that’s not going to be forever.”
Alemany does not believe this is the end of the Vancouver Island Connector, but he says there is still a need for public transit to connect remote communities across the Island.
“I think there’s a tourism market for [the Vancouver Island Connector],” he said. “I don’t think it’s been viable as public transit.”
The Vancouver Island Connector has been in operation since 2015 providing daily scheduled services to Vancouver Island communities from Victoria to Campbell River. In addition to the Tofino Bus, it also provided ground shipping to Vancouver and across the Island.
Wilson’s Transportation said it will continue to work with the provincial government to restore the service, but is asking communities—particularly those which are served by the Tofino Bus—to contact their MLA about the loss of service.
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— with files from Erin Haluschak