The Ministry of Transportation has quashed hopes for a shuttle bus along the Highway of Tears by confirming it has abandoned the concept, saying any further public transit expansion would be up to local governments.
Calls for a shuttle bus have been at the forefront of a campaign to improve safety along Highway 16 since the service was recommended in the Highway of Tears Symposium Recommendations Report, released in 2006.
The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry (MWCI), prepared by commissioner Wally Oppal in 2012, also urged the provincial government to “implement an enhanced public transit system to provide a safer travel option connecting the Northern communities, particularly along Highway 16.”
On Dec. 4 the B.C. government released its final update report on its progress implementing the recommendations of the MWCI.
Funding for a highway bus service was not included in the report.
The ministry last week confirmed it had decided a shuttle bus was a “one-size-fits-all” approach that would not work.
“Simply running a bus along the length of the highway won’t address the transportation challenges these communities face,” the spokesperson said.
“Instead, we are focusing on finding practical solutions to solve the challenges residents living along the corridor face.”
These solutions included a new web portal that consolidates information about transit, intercity buses, medical transportation, rail, and community-based transportation services into one place.
The ministry also cited $75,000 for increased training for access to driver education, safe driver, and driver licensing programs for First Nations.
The spokesperson also said local governments were responsible for any expansion or route alterations to the existing system.
Some leaders in communities along Highway 16 expressed disappointment.
Stikine MLA Doug Donaldson said the decision was “disgraceful.”
He said the government should take a leadership role to help communities link up their existing public transit services.
“I think what needs to be done is the communities along the highway that have many independent and small shuttle bus services at this time need to be consulted around how best to link that up,” he said.
“They should get a transportation expert from the Ministry of Transportation involved, you could get the communities involved, you could get the First Nations villages involved.”
Ron Mitchell, a Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief and house director at Moricetown Health, agreed there should be more consultation with communities.
Although the ministry said its priorities were based on community consultations last summer, Mitchell said he was not aware of any consultations with Moricetown representatives.
“As a community, one of the major issues is transportation,” Mitchell said.
“I think that they should have had more input from communities.
“We’re not asking them to run the shuttle bus every day, that’s not what we’re asking, and I think that if there is a schedule, [it could work] to have a pilot project, but those [ideas] weren’t even entertained.”
Smithers Mayor Taylor Bachrach, who has been an outspoken advocate for improving public transport along Highway 16, said he was disappointed the Ministry had not funded any improvement to the existing public transport system as recommended by the MWCI.
“I don’t think anyone was expecting an announcement that there would be a shuttle bus running multiple times a day between every community in the North but there was an expectation that there would be something substantive,” he said.
Bachrach said although he had seen the MWCI recommendations as the region’s best chance to see the system improved, he did not expect regional leaders would give up on the issue.
Local government leaders in the Hazeltons were more supportive of the ministry approach.
New Hazelton Mayor Gail Lowry does not believe a shuttle bus service would work.
“It just isn’t very practical on such a large stretch of highway and particularly in our area when several of our communities are quite a distance off the main highway,” Lowry said.
“Until we can get young people (and in particular young girls) to be aware of the dangers of hitchhiking, it will continue to be a concern.”
Hazelton Mayor Alice Maitland said villages like Hazelton did not have enough money to support more extensive transportation.
She believes the measures in the final update report would help improve safety.
“It is good to at last have the ear of the ministry, a bit of their money and seemingly they will to keep working toward mitigating a situation that will last until those of us who must hitchhike find a different way to travel.”