The City of Kelowna is responding to calls for council to “step up” and get involved in settling the current transit dispute that has idled buses and HandyDart service in the Central Okanagan for the more than a week.
The city says it is continuing to urge the company contracted to run the transit system here, First Canada, and the union representing 217 bus drivers here, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1722, to return to the table to hammer out a deal.
And it says it is also continuing to express it’s concerns to the province and BC Transit, which awarded the contract to First Canada.
In a statement issued late Friday afternoon, Kelowna City Hall said:
“We completely understand our transit users’ frustration. People in our communities rely on public transit for essential, day-to-day activities – commuting to and from work, school, medical appointments, shopping and other important engagements. For many, this is their only way to get around and we are sorry this essential service has been taken away.”
In the statement, Mayor COlin Basran said: “I want to clarify how the system is organized so that people have a better understanding of responsibilities and how decisions are made.
The City of Kelowna, Regional District of Central Okanagan, District of Lake Country, City of West Kelowna, the District of Peachland and Westbank First Nation all have a contract with B.C. Transit, the provincial transit authority. B.C. Transit contracts the delivery of transit services in the Central Okanagan to a private operator, First Canada. This arrangement has allowed us to afford a rapidly growing transit system without a service disruption in 39 years
He goes on to say: “First Canada was selected through an open and transparent bidding process by B.C. Transit to provide transit services in the Central Okanagan. There are five years remaining on that contract. First Canada provides transit service through similar agreements in 13 other municipalities/regional districts in the province.
First Canada then hires employees represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1722 to operate the buses in the region. Those working for First Canada are not municipal nor provincial employees.”
According to the mayor, the total cost to operate the transit system in the Central Okanagan is approximately $20 million. Half of that funding comes from the provincial government, through B.C.Transit. The other half is split between the six municipal partners and transit users through the fares they pay.
Revenues recover 30 per cent of cost of transit operations, but this heavily subsidized program is worth funding for its many benefits to our communities, added Basran.
“Thanks to provincial funding, we have been able to grow transit service in this way since 1977.” While he agreed the municipal “partners” provide significant funding, he said the primary funder is B.C. Transit and it has has final say in most decisions.
“More local autonomy and control over how and where the provincial funds are spent is something the municipal partners continue to advocate for,” said Basran. “But setting up a regionally owned and operated transit service is not something the municipal partners are considering at this time, as it would require significant tax increases.”
The mayor said mobility for local residents residents is a necessity, but his council does not have the authority to deem transit an essential service, it can’t order drivers back to work or appoint a mediator.
“These legislative authorities all rest with the provincial government. The municipal partners are also not involved in the ongoing contract negotiations between First Canada and the Union because, as mentioned earlier, these are not municipal employees.”
Local governments do, however, share the funding for local administration of the service, including scheduling, bus stops and promotion campaigns.
“So what is the City of Kelowna doing to help restore transit service to its residents?, ” writes the mayor.
“We are putting pressure on First Canada and its employees to get back to negotiations and reach a resolution as soon as possible. I have requested an appointment to speak with Transportation Minister Todd Stone about our concerns, and the city has been in daily contact with B.C. Transit officials, urging them to pressure both First Canada and its employees to help end this stalemate.”
He said council has suggested transit service be made an essential service in the hopes some high-volume routes can be restored while negotiations are ongoing.
“There are no winners in a situation like this. This is certainly not something we want to see happen or continue for a long period of time,” said Basran.
“Kelowna city council has promoted transit in good faith and for good reasons. Within the capacity we have as a municipal government, and in partnership with the province we will continue to invest in making transit more accessible for all residents.”
And he reiterated his call for residents to help each other during the transit strike.
“Until transit service resumes, this is an opportunity for our community to come together and help one another,” sad Basran. ” We all have a responsibility to find a way to help those impacted the most.”
And he acknowledged the longer this job action continues, the harder it may be to win back riders, something the city has worked hard to do over the years.