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Running on empty

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I very clearly remember driving across Canada from Ontario to B.C. when my family moved here from Scotland when I was 11 years old.

And one of the things I remember most was the number of Greyhound buses I would see on the highways and byways as we drove the 4,400 kilometres through every type of landscape I could imagine (my parents felt we should get to know this country if we were going to live here, and what better way than by driving the whole way across...sigh) to get to the Pacific Ocean.

To pass the time, we played an object-spotting game kind of like Bingo and if you spotted a Greyhound bus, it was double points. As you can imagine, the back seat of our Caprice station wagon (yes, it had faux wood panelling) was like a Wild West shoot-out when the game was afoot—a Greyhound bus was the ultimate target.

Then in my late teens, I rediscovered the fun of riding the Greyhound when I would travel up to the Interior from UBC on long weekends to visit my parents.

In those days, it was always on time, clean, safe, comfortable and the ticket price was just right for a starving student.

I imagine millions of people in North America have their own Greyhound bus stories, and, as we learned this week that the company was ending nearly all of its services here in the West, they likely came to mind.

For some, the memories might be lighthearted, like my own. But for the others, the memories and the reality tied to this change may be heart-wrenching, as thousands in rural communities have come to rely on Greyhound as a life link to health services, court services, family support, jobs and even just plain shopping.

Thousands in the Sea to Sky corridor use this service and there was already outcry from local political representatives, including our own mayor, when in March, the Passenger Transportation Board (PTB) allowed Greyhound to cut service to Mount Currie altogether and said it was considering cutting service to between Whistler and Pemberton to just two times in both directions per week— down from the previous minimum of seven.

Well, even that looks good now.

The BC Transit Sea-to-Sky Corridor Regional Transit Study, which was completed and released in October 2017, has been the foundation of on-going discussions amongst corridor stakeholders on the future of transportation here with the province, and the need for improved regional transit, from Mount Currie all the way to Vancouver.

Memorandums of Understanding have been signed on the issue pledging commitment to regional transportation.

And clearly, time is of the essence now as Greyhound withdraws its buses by this October.

The findings of the two-year study into transit systems in the Sea to Sky corridor showed that the market demand for regional transit is about 575 unique daily riders from Pemberton to Metro Vancouver, and lays out a short-term service proposal that would require eight buses and 15,100 additional service hours to provide six weekday round trips and four weekend round trips between Whistler/Squamish and Metro Vancouver, and an additional two daily round trips on the currently operating Pemberton-to-Whistler segment.

Total costs to initially implement it are estimated at $3.6 million, including up to $1.9 million to be split amongst the local governments.

Regional transit is not cheap. Back in February of 2017, Squamish Mayor Patricia Heintzman floated the idea of a local fuel tax to help foot the bills—so far, there's no word yet on whether that might be an option.

Our local MLA Jordan Sturdy is on board with improving regional transportation.

"The province is committed to being there with our share and is very supportive of moving to implement a regional transit service in conjunction with our partners," he told Pique last February.

Let's hope that this commitment is still in place and that the NDP moves now to take action.

Whistler and Squamish `have other bus services in place to help travellers get to and from the corridor, and it's likely that these entrepreneurial enterprises will come up with new ways to capture the market Greyhound is abandoning.

But regional transit must also be part of the solution. After all, it's not just about people taking the bus now and then. It could be seen as an opportunity to do some planning around getting people out of their cars and onto mass transit—good for congestion on what is in essence our two-lane Sea to Sky Highway, good for the environment, good for vulnerable populations who rely on affordable bus service: A win-win-win.

Sometimes adversity can spark creative solutions—let's make sure this is one of those times.

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