It's 4:40 p.m. on a Monday, and there's 15 people waiting for the Squamish commuter bus.
This time last year, the bus stop would have been crowded with people in the minutes leading up to its arrival. Then, Whistler council raised the commuter fares to $8 from $5 in November, adding it would only fund the service until the end of March, leaving the future of the service in uncertainty.
Since then, there's been a noticeable decline in ridership. Half the riders on this Monday are snowboarders making their way back home. The rest are people either heading home from work in Whistler or heading to work in Squamish. A group of four recent migrants from India stood in a crowd speaking quietly in their native tongue. They were waiting for the ride home.
Emma Dal Santo, traffic demands coordinator for the Resort Municipality of Whistler, said that ridership has declined by about 30 per cent over the entire day.
"Whenever there's a fare increase there's an associated drop in ridership," she said. "That's a given in transit and then it rebuilds over time."
There are currently four trips per day and another seven trips per day via Greyhound. The service began in 2005 as a seasonal service to provide Squamish residents who work in Whistler a safe and affordable alternative for getting to work. In 2008, when the commuter was extended into a year-round service, the RMOW agreed to fund the commuter until the end of 2010, at which point they would consider extending the service.
It is now running until the end of March with boosted fare rates of 60 per cent.
"The price came as a shock," said Murray Gamble, a Meadow Park employee who lives in Squamish and admits he has been obsessing over the possibility of losing the commuter.
"In 2008 when they brought in the new buses and year-round service, they raised the fare from $4.50 to $5. If a year later, especially if they made some improvements along the way, they had raised it to $6, then no problem. Put it up to $7, no problem," he said.
"To go from $5 to $8 in one sudden leap, and then say; 'We don't know if we're going to have a bus next month.'
"People gave up. There's a combination of the price increase and the uncertainty."
Dal Santo said she doesn't know how many of the riders currently taking the commuter are from Whistler heading into Squamish on a regular basis. The numbers that she does have are several years old now. BC Transit plans to compile that information when it does its origin destination surveys as part of its transit system review, currently underway.
But Gamble has been counting. During an interview at Pique 's office, he shows an Excel spreadsheet on his laptop indicating the numbers of riders in the mornings to Squamish and the numbers of riders coming back in the evening. He works the graveyard maintenance shifts at Meadow Park and has spent each ride for two years observing who's riding the bus and where they're from.
"Every time I'm on the bus I count how many people are from Squamish and how many people are from Whistler," he said.
By his count, ridership from Whistler to Squamish in the morning has dropped 63 per cent between October and December, and 47 per cent in the evenings back into Whistler. Sandra Roman, a Fairmont employee who has been riding the commuter since it was still a seasonal service in 2005, said the increase has "hit the pocketbook a little." But she said she'd rather take the commuter than anything else. As a Fairmont employee, she receives a travel allowance, but that had never been enough to cover the commute before the fare increase, and certainly doesn't cover the latest increase.
"Considering (the increase) seemed to be coming from Whistler, I was quite choked," she said. "Whistler seems to think it doesn't benefit them, but without Squamish workers, where would Whistler be? Honestly."