New calls for real public transit linking Vancouver, Squamish, and Whistler

Jan 18 2023, 8:41 pm

With growing traffic congestion along the Sea to Sky Highway and on the Lions Gate Bridge, the BC Greens are calling on the governing party of the BC NDP to provide real public transit alternatives along the route linking Vancouver, Squamish, Whistler, and Pemberton.

“A regional public transport network has been talked about for at least a decade, with no action from the provincial government,” said BC Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau in a statement today.

She also suggested it has been unfair for residents and businesses along the Sea to Sky Corridor to pay TransLink’s gas tax without having access to similar regional public transit services.

The onus on launching such a service was previously placed on the municipal governments of Squamish and Whistler, but Furstenau says while they are all highly supportive, they do not have the ability to launch such a service.

“Local governments and First Nations in the Sea to Sky Corridor don’t have the tools to make this transport network a reality on their own. The project must be steered by the provincial government. The BC NDP’s inaction hasn’t gone unnoticed,” continued Furstenau.

BC Liberals MLA Jordan Sturdy has also been urging the BC NDP to provide the needed funding to allow for the launch of a service.

“In order for the Sea to Sky regional transit service and commission to be implemented, this amendment is necessary and will, hopefully, stimulate this government to move this badly needed transit service into reality in the next fiscal year,” reads Sturdy’s proposed legislation in November 2021.

Currently, only private bus services traverse the length of the corridor, such as YVR Skylynx and Epic Rides, which have one-way fares between Vancouver and Whistler as high as $54 during the winter season. There has been a major void in frequency and capacity along the corridor ever since Greyhound withdrew its services from BC in 2018.

TransLink’s only bus service along the Sea to Sky Highway is Route 262, which uses a community shuttle bus vehicle between Caulfield in West Vancouver and Lions Bay. In 2019, it was TransLink’s 194th busiest bus route out of 216 routes, with 41,000 annual boardings and a weekday average of 130 boardings.

BC Transit also previously operated Route 98, the Squamish-Whistler Commuter, as a winter season pilot project linking Whistler and Squamish. It was launched in January 2005 and has operated for five years.

bc transit buses whistler village f

BC Transit buses in Whistler Village. (BC Transit)

Based on a 2017 study by BC Transit for the provincial public transit authority’s exploration of a new interregional service along the Sea to Sky Highway, there would be more than sufficient ridership for a bus system between downtown Vancouver and Whistler, with major stops at Horseshoe Bay and Squamish.

The study produced a daily ridership forecast of 575 boardings for the entire corridor, which suggests a “substantial latent demand for regional and interregional transit.” This includes 300 riders between Vancouver and Squamish, 175 between Squamish and Whistler, and 100 between Whistler and Pemberton. It is noted that these figures are deemed to be conservative.

The market demand analysis produced a daily ridership estimate of 575 passengers along the corridor, which indicates a substantial latent demand for regional and interregional transit along the Sea to Sky Corridor between the Pemberton area, Whistler, Squamish, and Metro Vancouver.

An initial short-term service, if it were to have been launched in 2020, would require eight buses and offer 15,000 annual service hours for a total annual operating cost of $3.3 million, with $1.9 million covered by local governments and $1.4 million by the provincial government. This is based on initial frequencies of six round trips on weekdays, four roundtrips on weekend days between Vancouver and Whistler, and an additional two daily round trips for the existing BC Transit service between Whistler and Pemberton. Over the subsequent years, the service would be further expanded.

bc transit sea to sky corridor proposed bus service route

Proposed interregional bus services along the Sea to Sky Highway between downtown Vancouver and Pemberton. (BC Transit)

The route would begin from downtown Vancouver and make 16 stops along the way before arriving at Whistler Village. The travel time between downtown Vancouver and Whistler Village would be about 3 hours and 25 minutes each way. In contrast, it takes about 1 hour and 40 minutes to make the same trip by driving under optimal traffic and weather conditions.

The completion of the Sea to Sky Highway upgrades and widening in the 2000s catalyzed a housing building boom along the corridor, especially in Squamish, which has become a suburban off-shoot of Metro Vancouver and a location for housing availability for Whistler resort workers. For various reasons, the highway’s capacity is increasingly being strained.

TransLink’s Transport 2050 plan also outlined the potential for interregional bus services along the Sea to Sky Highway, reaching the Fraser Valley and further south of the Fraser.

In March 2022, BC Transit extended its Route 66 Fraser Valley Express bus to reach SkyTrain Lougheed Town Centre Station in Burnaby. The service along Highway 1 from downtown Chilliwack previously had a western terminus of TransLink’s Carvolth bus exchange in Langley Township. The Fraser Valley Regional District spearheaded the route’s creation in 2015 and pushed for the most recent expansion, including the provision of regional funding.

A group of transportation planners in 2020 also conceptualized a theoretical high-speed passenger rail service that could link the Fraser Valley, Vancouver, and Whistler in just 60 minutes.

While there is a railway corridor that roughly parallels the Sea to Sky Highway starting from the North Vancouver waterfront next to Lonsdale Quay, its only passenger services are dedicated to the Rocky Mountaineer luxury tourist service. Up until about two decades ago, the railway network was operated by the provincial crown corporation BC Rail. In 2004, the provincial government leased BC Rail’s entire network and infrastructure to Canadian National over an initial 60-year term.

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