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Planning for the future of transit in Whistler

Sea to Sky Transit Future Plan offers recommendations for next 25 years

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There was one thing in particular that stood out to Coun. Steve Anderson during council's recent fact-finding trip to Colorado.

"Every single resort had free shuttles — free transit, period — but they also had funding formulas to help pay for it," said Anderson, who serves as the council representative on Whistler's Transit Management Advisory Committee.

"It's something that everybody would love to see (in Whistler), but it comes down to, 'how do you pay for it?'"

Free transit for Whistler isn't part of BC Transit's Sea to Sky Transit Future Plan — a guiding document for the service over the next 25 years — but the plan does offer lots to work with.

"Overall it's quite good," Anderson said. "That plan is for the entire corridor, it goes from Mount Currie to Squamish, so it means a lot of different things to different communities."

For Whistler, the main goals are to increase ridership and improve efficiency.

The plan outlines a number of recommendations to help achieve those goals.

For the next 15 years, recommendations for Whistler include increasing service in all seasons, improving customer facilities, a new bus stop in Rainbow and the relocation of the stop at Alta Lake Road to improve safety.

Another recommendation is to explore the possibility of installing Automatic Vehicle Location technology on Whistler buses.

Anderson said the tracking app has been a part of discussions for some time, and could be extra helpful on heavy snow days.

"We have some external influences by way of weather and snow," he said.

"And when I look at the Whistler bus schedule, it's very in-depth and rather convoluted, and that just gets thrown out when there's snow on the road, so something like an app for a locator that people can use seems to make a lot of sense to me."

The small recommendations around efficiency — dedicated turning lanes, relocated bus stops — would go a long way towards increasing ridership and keeping costs down, Anderson said.

"When we cut down two or three minutes on a transit route, you wouldn't believe how much money that saves," he said.

"Little things like that... I think it will make a huge difference for efficiency to the system, and I think people will be more likely to use it if it gets them closer to their destination and puts them on a safer road access."

According to the plan, Whistler services 2.8 million passengers a year, which accounts for about 15 per cent of all trips made in Whistler.

The goal is to increase that number to 25 per cent by 2040.

"I just think it's a great service, and we want to try to keep on making it a better one," Anderson said. "My main focus on this is to get more people riding the bus."

The plan was put together through months of consultations with various stakeholders in the region.

"The thing that we heard about most from customers was with regards to regional service connecting (Whistler, Pemberton and Squamish)," said Matthew Boyd, regional planning work lead for BC Transit.

"There has been, so far, a very encouraging response from the elected officials with regards to pursuing some of these options in more detail at some point in the future."

In a broad sense, the plan has four main goals for transit in the Sea to Sky: That by 2040, transit is for everyone, safe, environmentally sustainable and part of a multimodal transportation system.

"Achieving these goals (will entail) working closely with the local partners to find the levers to encourage transit ridership, and one of those main levers is to invest in transit service itself," Boyd said.

"If you want ridership to grow, then you have to have service that's available."

But there won't be much investment in the immediate future — last spring, the provincial government enacted a three-year budget freeze for BC Transit.

While the plan serves as a good guiding document, the question of funding lingers, said Jack Crompton, Whistler councillor and chair of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District's board of directors.

"Planning is important, but we also need to be able to fund it," Crompton said. "I look forward to hearing from the province how they believe that's best done."

Under the current funding model, BC Transit pays 50 per cent of all costs to each service, while the host municipality picks up the rest.

"To be fair, it is a long-term plan, and so it says very little about the next three years," Crompton said.

In the long-term — between 2025 and 2040 — the plan recommends exploring transit connections between Rainbow and Alpine Meadows, Spring Creek and Bayshores, Alta Lake Road and further into Emerald.

But while the plan encompasses more than two decades of transit planning, it's far from a concrete document, Boyd said.

"We try to predict the future as best as we possibly can, but there's still always unforeseen events, so we've tried to make the plan resilient and adaptive to potential changes," he said, adding that plans such as this one are generally revisited every five years.

"So in five years' time once this report sort of expires and we have a new understanding of how the communities are shaping, then we would revisit some of the options or produce new ones to adapt to changes in infrastructure or roadways or changes in technology."

BC Transit will be presenting its Sea to Sky Transit Future Plan to Whistler council on December 15.

For more on Whistler's Transit system, including a list of schedules and fees, head to www.bctransit.com/whistler/home.

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