Chris GareauSmithers Interior News
All communities along Highway 16 from Prince Rupert to Prince George will have BC Transit service by early 2017, according to Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Todd Stone.
Bus service to join smaller reserves and villages with service hubs will begin to be available by the end of this year under the $5-million Transportation Action Plan funded by the provincial and federal governments, $2 million more than originally announced earlier this year. Of that, $2.4 million will be used to fund the service over three years.
Local governments are negotiating amongst themselves and with the advisory group appointed by the Ministry to figure out how much they will need to pay, where the stops will be, what fares will be charged, and what the schedules will look like. The advisory group is made up of 12 provincially-appointed people from first nations, municipalities and health authorities.
“Those are decisions that are going to be made by the advisory committee and the local governments in question, not by the provincial government,” said Stone after the announcement in Prince George last Wednesday.
“I don’t want to pretend to suggest where I think the most appropriate stops should be. I want folks who live in the communities along the corridor to decide where those stops need to be.”
More buses, drivers, bus shelters and webcams are part of the plan that saw 16 local governments sign on with memorandums of understanding. The federal government is providing $1 million for the shelters and webcams.
Three new webcams have been installed in the Smithers area, with four more coming for the highway by spring 2017. Stone said privacy is not an issue with the webcams after discussions with the privacy commissioner, and will increase safety.
“We have over 600 [webcams] across the entire province. They’re monitored on an ongoing basis at our traffic management centre down in Coquitlam; so in part there’s monitoring that takes place and in part it’s about capturing video as well,” said Stone.
“The point is people will know, whether you’re a passenger or whether you’re a motorist, you’re going to know that you’re actions are being captured on that video feed, which from a deterrence perspective has proven to be one of a number successful strategies that can be employed to enhance safety.”
The minister also said that there is a difference between BC Transit service and the Greyhound bus service that already travels down Highway 16.
“The BC Transit service is service that is going to be customized to meet the specific needs of each and every community, recognizing that the municipalities are responsible for a portion of the annual operating funding, with the vast majority of the funding coming from the province,” said Stone.
“What that enables is the schedules and frequency of service to be what each community really needs, connecting every community.”
Brenda Wilson has been lobbying for years to have a regular, affordable transit system between Highway 16 communities for year, but is taking a believe-it-when-she-sees-it attitude towards the announcement. Her younger sister Ramona went missing in June 1994 at the age of 16, and her body was found near the Smithers airport in a wooded are off Highway 16 in April 1995. Ramona’s murder was never solved.
“I’m happy that the transit system is going to be looked at, and they’re looking at a plan to implement that transportation system, but I’m also leery because there are promises that have been made before and they take years and years until they’re implemented or it doesn’t even happen,” said Wilson, who was near Vanderhoof on the last leg of her journey to walk the Highway of Tears from Prince Rupert to Prince George when the announcement was made.
She also wants to ensure people who would use the buses get a voice in how they operate.
“It’s not about the municipalities that these buses go through, it has to work for the families and for the community members that are living along Highway 16,” said Wilson.
She was also concerned that the buses would not run late enough.
“It needs to go later because that’s when people need to get places,” said Wilson.
Another part of the announcement the minister highlighted was the $800,000 over three years for the community vehicle grant program, part of the $5-million plan.
“We’re now accepting applications from communities and first nations for those grants which will enable the purchase of vehicles which can be used either within a community or to connect one community to another,” said Stone.ww
In the end, Stone said he hoped the transportation plan would avoid more tragedy along Highway 16.
“I certainly hope so,” said Stone when asked if he believed vulnerable people would choose to use the service.
“The intention is by putting this service in place to address the fact we don’t want our daughters and young women and others to be hitchhiking. We want there to be other options, other choices. The vast majority of communities along Highway 16 don’t have any transportation choices,” said Stone.
Other details of the $5-million announcement last Wednesday include the doubling of money available for First Nation driver training, with a new $150,000 commitment from the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation to a total of $300,000 available, and increased collaboration and connectivity of services along the corridor. The ministry press release gave the example of the ministry, Northern Health Authority and First Nations Health Authority using integrated geographical information system (GIS) mapping to look at medical transportation needs and patterns, to better co-ordinate medical transport services for people in First Nations.