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Fuel tax could fund a regional transit authority for the Sea to Sky corridor



Municipal staff proposes a pilot program to test commuter demand between Squamish and Whistler

An extra three cents per litre fuel tax may be introduced to Sea to Sky corridor gas stations to fund a regional transit authority.

The transit authority would be modelled after a similar system in Vancouver, where there is a six cents per litre gas tax to fund transit, and likewise in Victoria, where there is a two and a half cents per litre gas tax for transit.

"If there is a regional transit authority developed like that, then with the province’s approval we’re allowed to implement a fuel tax," said Brian Barnett, general manager of engineering and public works at the RMOW.

A three cents per litre tax at gas stations in Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton would bring in roughly $750,000 annually for regional transit, said Barnett.

This would be more than enough to fund a bus service throughout the corridor.

"This funding source is fair and equitable so it’s not based on the population of different communities or their assessed (property) value or anything like that," said Barnett.

"It’s really just based on the fuel that people purchase. And by doing it that way, a lot of the funding for the regional transit service would be from the visitors that come to the corridor."

Barnett recently presented his idea to Squamish and Whistler councils, where it was well received.

But ultimately the province would have the final say on a new gas tax in the corridor.

"It’s still in the early stages and we still have a lot of conversations to have but the first step was to get Whistler council and Squamish council to talk about it and to agree to the idea and the go from there," said Squamish Mayor Ian Sutherland.

"It’s a creative solution that hopefully will find a lot of favour in Victoria."

Before a regional transit service comes into effect however, Barnett hopes to run a pilot program between Squamish and Whistler for roughly one or two years just to prove out the expected demand.

Studies of potential demand show the Squamish to Whistler bus service would be very successful.

The buses would run during the peak travelling hours between Squamish and the resort in the pilot program.

Generally people leave Squamish around 8 a.m. and leave Whistler around 4 p.m. at the end of their workday.

"About 80 per cent or more of the commuter traffic leaves in a very short time period from Squamish," said Barnett.

"So we would definitely look at providing service during those peaks."

There is also a lot of interest in providing a bus service late at night that would accommodate shift workers. This bus would leave Squamish around 10 p.m. and return first thing in the morning.

The need for this type of service has been at the forefront of the transit agenda after a fatal accident in January killed seven Squamish residents.

The head-on collision happened in Squamish around 8 a.m. as five shift workers returned from their night shifts in the resort.

"Unfortunately we have the momentum because of what happened on January 31," said Sutherland.

"Unfortunately it’s a fact of life but things like that tend to drive things like this. So we want to at least make some good come of that."

The pilot program, which is just a skeleton service, is expected to cost about $200,000 annually.

"We can get... short-term funding for a pilot program with Squamish but what’s the point (of starting it) unless there’s a permanent funding source?" said Barnett.

"This is what I’ve suggested the two council’s consider."

Barnett’s recent trip to California with Mayor Hugh O’Reilly to learn about cutting edge alternative fuel technology really reinforced his ideas for regional transit in the Sea to Sky corridor.

There, in a place called Palm Desert, seven neighbouring communities have formed a regional transit authority called SunLine, which has a bus fleet running solely on natural gas.

"I saw the real benefit of regional transit services when I was down there and I saw what could be done when the different communities have a forum to make regional transportation decisions," he said.

Squamish and Whistler would both keep their own community bus services even with a regional transit authority.

"It would really be like direct non-stop service between Squamish and Whistler," said Barnett.

In addition, the current bus service between Whistler and Pemberton would expand under the regional transit authority.

Barnett’s proposal has yet to come before either Squamish or Whistler council in a formal staff report.