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Wilson’s expects to restore bus service with transportation aid package

The president of Wilson’s ­Transportation expressed relief Tuesday after the province agreed to provide more than $10 million in grants for inter-city bus operations in B.C.
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John Wilson, president of Wilson’s Transportation, said the grants are nothing short of a life saver for an industry that has lost more than 95 per cent of its business due to the pandemic. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

The president of Wilson’s ­Transportation expressed relief Tuesday after the province agreed to provide more than $10 million in grants for inter-city bus operations in B.C.

John Wilson, who has been lobbying for funding for months for the beleaguered ground-transportation sector, said the grants are nothing short of a life saver for an industry that has lost more than 95 per cent of its business due to the pandemic.

“I think this is a step in the right direction, and for the inter-city sector it is a lifeline that can get what we consider an essential service back up and running across the province,” said Wilson, adding the company will submit its application for funding today. “This is like a big win after a long losing streak.”

Wilson said its inter-city service could be running as early as April 1 if the grant application is approved.

The company operates a number of bus services, ­including links between ­Victoria, Vancouver and Vancouver ­airport, as well as ­connections between Victoria, Tofino and other Island ­communities, and between Vancouver and ­Whistler, Kelowna and ­Kamloops.

The $10.7 million earmarked for bus transportation was part of a $27.2-million grant announcement Tuesday that included $16.5 million in grants for regional airport authorities. The money is intended to allow both sectors to maintain essential operations until the end of March 2022.

The province said the application process, which is open now, has been simplified and the money is expected to be available by the end of this month.

Calling both sectors essential pieces of transportation infrastructure, Premier John Horgan said the funding was designed to protect services that people in rural and remote communities rely on.

“I want to thank those companies for staying in place,” he said.

Prior to the announcement, Wilson’s, the biggest inter-city transport company in the province, had said it was close to permanently cutting some of its 10 inter-city routes.

“We started conversations with Transportation Minister Rob Fleming and his team in January with the idea it was a last-ditch effort to see if we could continue operating with some kind of subsidy,” Wilson said.

In February, Wilson’s ­Transportation announced plans to cancel its Tofino Bus and Island Connector services in the North Island.

With the grant, Wilson said the company will be able to offer a consistent service in those regions, although he warned the routes may not have the frequency or capacity they once did.

Heather Bell, chair of the B.C. Aviation Council, said without financial help, airports would have trouble supporting and sustaining fire suppression and essential medical-evacuation services.

She said the money will provide regional airports the necessary funds to maintain air terminals, runways and other operations.

“We see [the announcement] as a clear sign that our government understands the vital role our airports play in our transportation system and provincial economy,” she said.

The Transportation Ministry said the grants will not be capped at a certain amount but will be determined on a case-by-case basis, and will take into account factors such as the size of the motor coach, operating costs per route, ridership information and what other relief the company has received.

Funding levels for the 57 regional airports will be set by looking at the size of facility, traffic levels, traffic complexity and medevac usage.

Wilson said at one point the company had asked for a $3-million subsidy that would maintain the inter-city service if there was no ridership.

Predictions for post-pandemic demand range from a crush of passengers due to pent-up demand to a slow trickle if ­people are wary of getting into a bus or aircraft, he said.

Horgan held out the possibility the transportation grant ­program could be topped up if passenger numbers do not return as hoped this year.

“If this is insufficient, we will revisit it,” the premier said. “Nothing is more important than connecting communities, and nothing is more important than making sure people can travel safely.”

Horgan said there would now be some focus on the larger tourism operators like hotels and large attractions that have been hit hard by the pandemic but have so far been unable to take advantage of many relief programs.

Asked why that sector has been left until now, Horgan suggested the government, like everyone else, has been operating without a roadmap and creating programs as the need arises in consultation with the community.

“We have been looking at it on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “That’s been a challenge.”

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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