There will be no bus service between Port Alberni and the west coast communities of Tofino and Ucluelet from January to May 2023.
A statement on the Vancouver Island Connector website reads:
“To our Valued Customers, after much consideration, we regret to inform you that the Tofino Bus and Vancouver Island Connector, will be pausing services on Tuesday, January 3rd, 2023, and will not resume services again until May 2023 as we look to move towards a more seasonal service.”
The company cites a 95 per cent decline in ridership on the route since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, making the full-time operation of the service unsustainable.
Tofino Bus states that while ridership is picking up again it has yet to return to pre-pandemic sustainable levels.
“We recognize and understand the COVID is the underlying cause and we hope that the government can look at a way to subsidize this service,” said Chief Councillor Elmer Frank of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation.
He noted that locals were given short notice of the service disruption and it will have an impact on the people of Tla-o-qui-aht and other outlying communities on Vancouver Island’s west coast.
“A lot of people rely on the service for medical and to get to town, and this is the most economical way to do it,” said Frank.
“Over the past few months, we have tried our best to continue service by making drastic cuts to service levels,” stated Tofino Bus. “However, having received all available government subsidies and grants, continued rising costs and labor shortages, we have no other choice but to continue to make difficult operational changes.”
Chief Frank sympathizes with the Wilson’s Group, which owns the Tofino Bus and also has run the Vancouver Island Connector bus service since 2015.
“Everything has gone up…fuel, groceries, and we know the bus service and other tourism industries relied on government subsidies too for the past two years, but the COVID money ran out,” he said, adding everyone is forced to look for creative ways to make ends meets.
Bus service disruption is nothing new for residents of Hot Springs Cove, but it creates an expensive and difficult problem as administrative staff struggle to coordinate alternative travel arrangements for their population of about 60 people who live in the remote coastal village.
Nora Lucas is the community health representative for the Hesquiaht First Nation and makes travel arrangements for residents needing to get to town for medical or dental appointments.
“This is most definitely a problem as most of our people travel by bus,” she noted.
Located an hour (by boat) northwest of Tofino, most of the population in Hot Springs Cove are elders people, with a few single parents who have young children. Boat fare from the village to Tofino is already expensive and charters are out of reach for most residents.
The news of the bus service suspension has already forced three patient travel cancellations this week alone. Lucas said that the last time the bus service was reduced to a few days a week patients sometimes had to stay in town for an extra two or three days until the next scheduled bus back to Tofino. The additional hotel and meal expenses were covered by the nations’ patient travel program.
“We would try to coordinate patient travel with those of us that have our own vehicles, but the fuel allowance under patient travel isn’t enough to cover the actual cost of the trip,” Lucas pointed out.
There are private vehicle owners who offer to drive west coast residents from Vancouver Island cities to Tofino for a small fee or at charter rates, which vary, but they are always far more expensive than bus fare. These ride shares are an informal network of licensed vehicle owners who may take a passenger or two for ‘gas chip-ins’, or it could be someone willing to charter their vehicle to bring passengers and their parcels to the west coast at a charter rate.
Chief Frank says many of his people use this ride share option, but critics warn that these operators don’t have business licences nor are they insured for transporting passengers for money. But this is one of the most economical options for people without their own means of transportation, Frank admits.
“The struggles are real for those without transportation and we have to work with what we have,” he said.
Frank went on to say that his council and administrative staff plan to look at transportation alternatives for their people that make financial sense.
Tofino Bus has not set an exact start date for service to resume.
“We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause and thank you for your continued support,” the company wrote on its website.