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Whistler transit still comes up short

Hydrogen project not to blame for $2.3 million shortfall, says staff report



Whistler has closed the funding gap on transit but it still can't pay all the bills for the upcoming operating season.

The municipality is $840,000 short on an $11 million bus bill it shares with BC Transit and the new council will have to find that money somewhere as it heads into budgeting talks for 2012.

"Staff will present us a snapshot of where we are," explained Mayor Ken Melamed after Tuesday's council meeting. "(They'll say) 'here are the costs that are coming at you, here's what council has potentially committed to' and then we look at how to balance the budget."

Tuesday's decision to approve the transit budget, despite the shortfall, was made after a detailed presentation from staff outlining the extensive financial and facility review of the transit system.

One of the questions also put to rest by the recent reviews was: is Whistler paying the price for showcasing hydrogen facility and buses, part of a pilot project during the 2010 Games.

The review found that Whistler is not paying any premium for the hydrogen facility.

The staff report to council states: "It has been clearly demonstrated to staff that the extra costs for the Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and the Hydrogen components of the Whistler transit maintenance facility are not being paid by the Resort Municipality of Whistler."

Staff, in conjunction with BC Transit, narrowed the funding gap by almost $1.5 million, through various techniques from increasing ad revenue to lengthening the amortization period on the building.

"Very few stones have been left unturned, if any," said Councillor Tom Thomson, praising the work done by staff and BC Transit.

But not all agreed. Two councillors - Eckhard Zeidler and Grant Lamont - voted against the plans.

"I guess I just didn't take my happy pills this morning," said Zeidler dryly.

He went on to explain that the facility, which he named Garagmahal as it was being built before the 2010 Games, was imposed on the community, designed to accommodate 50 buses. Today's fleet has been reduced from 31 buses last year to 23.

Zeidler said the facility was built for a fleet more than double the size of what Whistler's minimally acceptable system is right now, and, this community, he added, has a cap on growth.

He called the bus facility "a massive miscalculation on somebody's part."

He compared it to the hotels built in the community, saying Whistler has twice as many as it needs.

And he also had a message for transit - if Whistler is successful in getting a special Order in Council from the province to allow it to rent out its facility to third parties, that revenue said Zeidler should come only to RMOW and shouldn't be shared with BC Transit.

"It was not our mistake that this place was built to the size it was," he said.

Mayor Melamed disagreed that the facility is too big. While it's true Whistler has a growth cap, the community is trying to raise occupancy levels in the resort and more people will be taking transit if it's reliable and convenient, he argued.

"There's enormous opportunity to grow ridership in the system," said the mayor, adding that he can see the fleet expanding down the road.

"I'm quite pleased and comfortable with the size of the building. There is some short term pain."

The following day he clarified that the design size of the facility was not a guess but based on a 2011 fleet forecast of 36 buses. It was, he said, designed before the downturn and only the parking and the storage areas are sized to house a larger fleet in the future.

One of the new options, set to save the municipality more than $73,000 per year, is to change the amortization period of the building's debt.

Now, instead of a 30-year pay back, the $24 million facility will have a 40-year amortization period.

Whistler has also asked that the province absorb the cost of refurbishing its old buses, the Dennis Darts, to put them back into service elsewhere in the province. Those buses were removed from the fleet in 2008 before their projected retirement dates. The $900,000 payment to refurbish them was included as a Use of Asset/Debt Service line item in the transit budget.

Councillor Grant Lamont urged the BC Transit officials in attendance to "please make us look good on that one" by taking that cost from Whistler.

Lamont did not explain his opposition in general to transit but he gave kudos to his fellow councillor, Ralph Forsyth, for pushing to get advertising revenue on the buses.

The bus advertising will generate $20,000 this year and may go up to $30,000 next year.

"I'd just like to make sure that's noted," said Lamont of Forsyth's commitment.



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