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Changes to cruise-shuttle route worry Government Street businesses; landmark spots bypassed

New route bypasses legislature, Empress, Inner Harbour and is eight-minutes longer each way
Perry Foster and Theresa Palmer outside their Government Street store Out of Ireland. Palmer says a proposed new route for a cruise-ship shuttle will leave a bad first impression on cruise passengers, who often return to the city for holidays on their own. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

The City of Victoria’s plan to change the route and drop-off spot for shuttle buses bringing thousands of cruise-ship passengers downtown will hurt lower Government Street businesses, say several merchants.

Theresa Palmer, who operates the Out of Ireland retail shop, said changing the buses’ traditional route from Ogden Point past the legislature, Empress Hotel and Inner Harbour will also leave a less-than-favourable first impression on cruise passengers, who often return to the city for holidays on their own.

The shuttle buses usually drive past all of those attractions before unloading at Government and Fort streets.

However, the lower three blocks of Government street are now open to pedestrian traffic only, with timed openings for vehicles to make deliveries and service calls in the mornings.

The move was a pandemic measure, but the city wants to keep it that way. So the city and Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, which operates the passenger buses, have rerouted and moved the drop-off a block north of Bay Centre.

The proposed route will see shuttle buses leave Ogden Point and travel east on Dallas Road to Douglas Street, branch off to Blanshard Street at Beacon Hill Park and proceed along Blanshard to View Street, where two-way traffic will be reinstated, before the drop-off stop at Government and Yates streets.

More than a dozen businesses and property owners on lower Government oppose the new route, fearing it will take passengers away from the harbour and into other shopping zones. The businesses say cruise passengers don’t stray far from the drop-off points and most of lower Government has extended opening hours to accommodate them.

Brock Eurchuk, who operates Pacific Ports Mercantile on lower Government, said the changes were made with ­little or no consultation with the ­merchants. He said those merchants pay some of the city’s highest retail rents and contribute some of the highest property taxes.

“The business delivered to us by the cruise-ship shuttles is critical to our survival,” said Eurchuk. “A large number of the businesses in this area receive half of their annual revenues from cruise passengers.”

He expects the city’s new stop to cut lower Government Street’s cruise-ship related revenues by 75%. That translates to an annual revenue reduction of 35% to 40%, said Eurchuk, a hit most operators will not be able to absorb.

“All this after holding on by our fingernails as two years of COVID-19 completely ravaged our businesses,” he said.

Two years after COVID-19 closed the borders to big passenger vessels and left ports empty, Ogden Point will welcome its first cruise ship, the Caribbean Princess, on April 6. Barring any unexpected closures, the ­harbour authority has 350 scheduled ship calls that will bring an estimated 759,000 passengers from April to October.

Victoria Coun. Stephen Andrew has been visiting stores and talking with the merchants and landlords on lower Government Street for several weeks. He held a group discussion online on Monday with 25 store owners who voiced concerns about potential financial loses if the drop-off is moved.

“There is a lot of anxiety. I really feel for them,” Andrew said.

“We’ve got to do something to help these guys to get some sort of reprieve.”

He’s introducing a motion at Thursday’s council meeting, supported by Coun. Geoff Young, asking staff to seek a plan to open Government Street to buses from Humboldt to Fort streets during the cruise season.

“We have to try all the options,” said Andrew, adding the proposed route from Ogden Point along Blanshard Street “is not an entrance to the city I would want.”

Merchants are requesting a reprieve from council’s decision for at least one year, said Palmer.

Lera Zakreski of Artina’s jewellery told the city in a letter the business relies on cruise-ship passengers and the crucial summer months, when it makes 50% of its sales. “Most of [the jewellery] is produced by exceptionally talented artists from Indigenous Nations,” she said. “In some cases, the artists we showcase depend entirely on Artina’s to distribute their products.”

David Glowicki, who operates seven tourism-related stores downtown, said revenues have plunged up to 90% since the pandemic started. After surviving on government wage and rent subsidies, they now “find ourselves in a fight with the city.”

“If we don’t have a decent year, I don’t know where we’ll be,” said Glowicki, noting the stores employ up to 70 people and support First Nations artists by selling their art.

David Roberts, head of Pacific Northwest Transportation Services, which operates 45 shuttle buses on behalf of the harbour authority, said the shuttles dropped off more than 110,000 passengers downtown during the 2019 cruise season.

Because of the Government Street closure, he said the initial plan was to drop passengers at the Coho ferry terminal. The city came back with its current plan, which was a longer route, but ticked off all the boxes in terms of accessibility and safety.

Before the stop was moved to Government and Fort, the first cruise bus drop-off and pickup was at Humboldt and Government near the Empress, but that option is out of the question now because new bike lanes and infrastructure make aturn unsafe for buses.

Roberts said the latest proposed route will be eight minutes longer each way because of the distance involved and more traffic lights.

The shuttle-bus operators also agreed to not take the same route to and from Ogden Point in order to reduce the traffic impact on any given street as part of their commitment to James Bay residents.

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