When buses are running again, BC Transit has a plan.
Rob Ringma, BC Transit’s senior government relations manager, provided the City of Mission council with a presentation last week (July 4) that included updates on ridership, transit improvement, electronic fare collection, electric buses and the Fraser Valley transit strike.
“Across the province right now, we’re hitting about 90 per cent of pre-COVID ridership levels,” Ringma said. “That’s actually including the fact that in the Fraser Valley we have no transit service right now.”
With the Fraser Valley included, Ringma expects the number to rise above its pre-pandemic heights.
Before getting into the nuts and bolts of his presentation, Ringma apologized on behalf of BC Transit for the inconvenience and impact the strike has had on students, workers, seniors and those who rely on transit the most.
The labour dispute between First Transit and CUPE 561 has suspended bus service in Mission, Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Agassiz and Hope since March 20.
“BC Transit definitely recognizes the challenges the strike’s created for the citizens of Mission and our riders in the central Fraser Valley,” he said.
Ringma said mediator Vince Ready met with both sides and a report with recommendations was expected to be presented to both parties and the Minister of Labour sometime last week. As of Wednesday morning (July 12), no recommendations have been made public.
“Not to put the cart in front of the horse, [but] we’re very optimistic that with [Ready’s] experience and his knowledge in this area of getting this kind of dispute resolved, we look forward to some positive outcomes from his report,” Ringma said “And I look forward to hopefully being in front of this council again, speaking about our return to transit program.”
During the remainder of his presentation, Ringma outlined future initiatives for BC Transit in Mission and beyond.
The corporation will replace its current fare collection system in the Fraser Valley to meet the expectations of current riders.
The new system will feature a fare card that can be reloaded via a mobile app or at a vendor. Sights are set on the ability to pay via tap with a debit or credit card in the future. Integration with the Translink card is also being explored.
“Obviously the Messiah of where we’d like to get to is to have one card where you can seamlessly move between BC Transit and Translink systems,” Ringma said,
Rollout for the new system is expected for the Central Fraser Valley in the fall of 2023 after public engagement and education.
Other initiatives included the expansion of HandyDart services, more bus routes and “beefing up” Sunday services.
HandyDart improvements were approved by council last year but weren’t approved by BC Transit. In the next three years, BC Transit is looking to make HandyDart buses available on Sundays, improve the daily service span and add buses to help with capacity issues.
“This is going to remain kind of our first priority,” Ringma said.
On Sundays, BC Transit plans to add trips on routes 31 (Abbotsford/Mission) and 33 (Cedar Valley), increase the service hours for route 32 (West Heights-Mission), and make route 34 (East Side-Mission) hourly.
Ringma also revealed future plans for new transit service to the Silver Creek Industrial Park and an expansion of route 31 (Abbotsford/Mission) to McCallum Exchange with increased frequency.
“We’re also working with the Fraser Valley Regional District on a north of Fraser route from Kent and Agassi back to Mission as well,” he said.
Long-term plans for the integration of Translink’s 701 (Haney Place/Maple Ridge East) bus route were also revealed.
The initiatives will be costed by BC Transit and brought back for council approval later in the year. BC Transit will reapply for expansion support in the fall.
According to the presentation, BC Transit also committed to transitioning to an electric fleet by 2040 and stopped ordering heavy-duty diesel buses as of this year. Pilot depoloyments are slated for Victoria this year and targeted for other areas in 2025/26.
Additionally, Ringma provided projections for the operating agreement with Mission, which included predicted costs and revenues for 2023 but did not include the impact of the labour dispute.
While buses are suspended, BC Transit still incurs costs such as electricity and Internet to ensure transit service is back on the road as soon as possible. However, costs such as fuel, labour and bus maintenance have all “dropped basically to zero.”
Ringma says BC Transit will need to reassess where it sits once the transit strike is over.
“I’d be the first one to admit that I don’t know if there’s a cost too large to try to get transit service back on the road but we also have to be respectful that this is a taxpayer-funded service,” he said.