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Bus stop blues

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Rob Shaw: BC’s bus sector desperately needs help – but may not be able to survive, unless the NDP government can get past its own ideology.

B.C.’s New Democrat government has had an odd love-hate relationship with the province’s bus sector for several years, and the pandemic has pushed that dynamic to the breaking point.

Transportation Minister Rob Fleming is expected to decide as early as this week whether to bail out the province’s ailing bus industry, which is reeling from a lack of passengers due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Fleming has said publicly that some sort of aid package is coming.

But in what form, and whether it’s enough to save some of the smallest routes currently only served by only one provider, remains to be seen.

A quick check of the government’s recent track record does not inspire confidence.

When North American giant Greyhound asked for help in late 2017, citing millions in losses running small B.C. routes it was obliged to service in exchange for the more profitable major corridors, the NDP was completely disinterested.

So Greyhound left.

A quick check of the government’s recent track record does not inspire confidence.

Then Transportation Minister Claire Trevena scrambled to fill the void amid the hundreds of backroads and small cities that only Greyhound had serviced.

She launched a money-losing taxpayer-funded provincial bus service called B.C. Bus North, which runs from Prince Rupert to Prince George, Fort St. John and Fort Nelson, to ensure reliable and safe transportation for aboriginal women in particular in the region.

Trevena applauded local companies like Tofino Bus and Wilson’s Transportation for stepping in to fill the gaps in other areas on Vancouver Island as Greyhound atrophied.

Three years later, those same local bus companies are appealing for the same help New Democrats were loath to give to Greyhound.

The question facing the government now is: Will it help local private sector companies, or step in to run everything as a public service like B.C. Bus North?

Wilson’s, which now owns Tofino Bus, has been calling on the province for help since October. It wants a subsidy of around $3 million, according to a CTV News report. So far, the answer has been no.

Wilson’s has seen a 95 per cent drop in revenue and is unsure if it can restart its Vancouver Island Connector service this month, which is an essential link to 29 island communities and 21 First Nations.

The NDP government has refused to budge on that ideological viewpoint now for most of the pandemic, even as most of its small business grants remain unspent due to low uptake by the business community.

Given how the NDP once praised Wilson’s for helping solve its Greyhound problem, you’d think the government would have been at the table with money months ago. But instead, it has spent months dithering over whether Wilson’s is too large to save.

The company has more than 142 employees, which disqualifies it from the small and medium sized business grant program. That employee number is an imaginary threshold set by the NDP because it views companies that are too large and corporate as unworthy of taxpayer subsidies.

It has refused to budge on that ideological viewpoint now for most of the pandemic, even as most of its small business grants remain unspent due to low uptake by the business community.

The new bus aid package will be an interesting test case for the NDP government, both in whether it can craft a more realistic aid package than its first round of support programs; and whether it can bring itself to financially support a local bus sector it was happy to use as political cover, but now requires actual action to save.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

rob@robshawnews.com
twitter.com/robshaw_bc

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