A plan to reduce bus service in West Kelowna has received initial approval from the mayor and a majority of his councillors.
The “route rationalization” proposed by B.C. Transit as part of the Central Okanagan’s transit master plan is, in the words of West Kelowna Mayor Doug Findlater, the “tradeoff” his municipality is willing to make to participate in the new rapid bus system.
It would see the elimination of three low-used routes currently serving the Smith Creek, Westlake Road, Horizon and Bear Creek areas.
According to B.C. Transit senior urban trnasportation planner Michelle Orfield, the 27 Horizon, 28 Smith Creek and 29 Bear Creek routes are not even meeting minimum use requirements set out by B.C Transit, accounting for just five per cent of local ridership.
That compares to the 21 Glenrosa, 24 Shannon Lake, 20 Lakeview and 25 East Boundary routes which account for a combined 95 per cent of the ridership and 84 per cent of the total service hours.
Under the plan presented by B.C. Transit, the new system would include the top four most popular routes and the new rapid bus system which would feature direct service between West Kelowna to UBCO along Highway 97 with limited stops.
The plan would save West Kelowna $453,000 per year, which amounts to 31 per cent of what the municipality currently spends on transit.
Currently, transit costs the municipality $1.44 million a year. The total cost of operating the system on the west side of the lake is $3.6 million, with additional transit service funding coming from B.C. Transit and fares collected from riders.
“Yes, we are reducing in areas where it isn’t used as much,” acknowledged Findlater.
“But that was the trade-off when we signed on to Bus Rapid Transit.”
He said without the reductions, the district would be looking at what he called “hefty” cost increases that West Kelowna cannot afford.
But while most of the councillors appeared to support the plan recommended by B.C. Transit, it was not unanimous.
In voicing her disappointment in the report, Coun. Carol Zanon said she saw “big holes” in the propsoal and did not consider it a green plan because it would mean residents with public transit now would have to turn to their own vehicles for transportation.
And she said at least one of the areas affected is growing. “Smith Creek has many houses in it and more are planned,” she said.
Another councillor, Rosalind Neis, who lives in the Lakeview Heights area, said her son rides the bus to and from school.
Neis said he and his friends do not have good things to say about the transit system.
She said in one instance, a driver did not follow the regular route after calling out to passengers, asking if anyone needed to stop at a particular area.
When no one responded, he bypassed the Stevens Exchange and continued into Kelowna.
Some passengers who did not hear the question then had to bus back to the Westside.
“It’s unacceptable not to follow the stated route,” she said.
Neis added routes also have to make sense, and several currently do not.
She and Zanon voted against moving forward based on the B.C. Transit report.
But the concerns registerd by Neis and Zanon were not enough to sway a majority of council, who instructed district staff to continue working with B.C. Transit officials to come up with a way of gathering public input about the proposed changes.
While the proposed option was not officially endorsed, most councillors expressed support for it.
Coun. David Knowles, even said the cuts should be deeper and services added back into the system in future as demand rises.
The other two options presented by Orfield included a more severe cut that would affect an estimated 22 per cent of the current ridership by eliminating all but the top two most used routes, Glenrosa and Shannon Lake, and reducing operating hours, and another option that would keep most of the existing system in place.
The first option would reduce the costs to the district by about $700,000 per year, while the third option would reduce the cost by just under $200,000 per year.
But while costs would go down, Coun. Dwayne Ophus cautioned against the public expecting a corresponding reduction in taxes.
“Just because the cost goes down, it doesn’t mean the amount charged to taxpayers will go down,” he said.
Ophus added that cost pressures on the district will require it to raise money to pay for future services, infrastructure and equipment.
He described the proposed change as “exactly the right direction,” for the local transit system to be moving in.
According to B.C. Transit, the Westbank First Nation council supports the proposed changes.
In order to implement the changes in September—pending final approval by West Kelowna council—B.C. Transit must have an answer from council by April so it can prepare the system and educate the public.