“It is fundamentally wrong to leave these folks stranded,” said Colin Waddell of Fort St. John.
After reading about the lack of transit service to the new Fort St. John hospital, Waddell has decided to take matters into his own hands, or behind the wheel of his own vehicle. He has volunteered to transport those who rely on the transit system for trips to the hospital.
“I’m retired now – I have the time; I have the means, so why not help out,” he said.
Though he’s happy he can be of service, he’s not impressed with the situation.
“This is just wrong,” he said. “It’s (the bus is) not just (for) seniors, it’s (for) lower-paid employees (of the hospital).
“My personal feeling is that somebody took their eye off that ball and it just went bouncing down the road and all of a sudden it just went oops,” said Waddell.
Both Fort St. John Mayor Lori Ackerman and Blair Lekstrom, Minister of Transportation, agreed.
“We initiated conversation with BC Transit a year ago to ensure that they understood that public transportation was going to be required at the new hospital,” said Ackerman. “My understanding is that there was some staff changes at BC Transit and it didn’t get pushed through as quickly as it should have.
“Decisions were made and this request had been dropped,” she continued. “When we got back to it, of course it was too late to get it in place.
“We’ve been looking for alternatives,” said Ackerman.
She said they need the transit service to support the public, and also for the hospital’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, which is a rating system for green buildings.
She said the City has met with the chair of Northern Health and the CEO of Northern Health.
“They have written us a letter explaining their requirements for public transportation for the LEED certification,” she said. “I have forwarded that, along with a letter (from the City detailing the urgency of the request) to the Minister of Transportation.”
Ackerman said she’s leveraging the LEED certification to hopefully bring more light to the issue.
She said she sent it both to the Minister’s office in Victoria, as well as in Dawson Creek.
“I got the letter,” said Lekstrom. “I have forwarded it to my staff for consideration.
“I know our people are working with Fort St. John and we’re going to continue to do that, but this is not a BC Transit issue,” he continued. “I’m not pointing the finger at anybody, (but) somewhere there has been something gone astray.”
The Transportation Minister said he looked into the matter.
“What I have found out is the City has been in discussions (with BC Transit) for some time,” said Lekstrom. “Between November of 2011 and June of 2012 BC Transit made numerous attempts to get written direction from the City with respect to its priorities for transit services to the hospital and had no received information back.”
Meribeth Burton, BC Transit spokesperson, said they gave “options to City staff to get their comments, feedback and we did not get feedback.”
“That’s where we feel like the communication breakdown may have began,” said Burton.
Ackerman said that City staff have forwarded her correspondence between BC Transit and Fort St. John from the fall. She said staff responded to BC Transit.
Lekstrom noted that buses are “not a service” provided by BC Transit.
“It is the City of Fort St. John coming to the table with funding as well,” he said.
Ackerman said the City of Fort St. John initiated a verbal conversation with BC Transit on July 13, 2009, when one of their managers appeared as a delegation at a city council meeting.
“Even at that time we spoke about the new hospital and how we would have to work together to create an operation that worked,” she said.
She then pointed to the City’s 2012 budget, which was presented as a Power Point at the Jan. 28 Committee of the Whole meeting.
“That information is there, showing an increase in our budget to accommodate the route that expands out there,” Ackerman continued. “That was all put into place; the conversations have been had.”
At the committee of the whole meeting, the budget denoted a four per cent increase from last year for transit expenditures - from $2,374,992 to $2,470,500.
The same document, which Ackerman said staff begun work on in the fall, said the “new hospital will require a route change/expansion in 2012.”
Burton said that was “complete news” to her.
“We have had no direction to start a new route that I’m aware of,” she said.
Burton said decisions to increase bus service are “publicly made.”
“Once it’s public, it’s available to us,” she said.
She explained that establishing a new route follows a specific process: “BC Transit works with the local government to evaluate the need and present options; following formal approval from the local government of an option, and confirmation of their ability to fund their share of the service, an implementation plan is created and in the event expansion hours and additional vehicles are required, BC Transit would allocate available Provincial funding required for the service.”
Burton said the four per cent increase in transit funding relates to “year-over-year status quo service.”
She did not detail exactly how the City is to inform BC Transit when funding has been increased.
When asked about BC Transit’s staffing changes, Burton said there are “staffing changes in every work place.”
She said the regional transit manager, who now covers Fort St. John, started in this post last November.
“The person who was covering that area just sort of switched coverage areas, so he’s still here, it’s just that he has a different region that he’s responsible for, but I would think that the lines of communication...would still be strong,” said Burton. “I can’t argue that continuation of staffing would be great in every environment, but we at BC Transit believe that we have not been given direction with the options that were given.”
Lekstrom said he wasn’t sure whose positions changed at the transit company.
“I don’t look at who is hired,” said Lekstrom.
He said the transit system’s CEO has been in place for a “considerable length of time.”
“I don’t get involved in the day-to-day operations of BC Transit,” said Lekstrom. “What I do is take an issue like this that’s (been) forwarded to me by the mayor.”
He said BC Transit was waiting for “written confirmation” from the City.
“BC Transit didn’t receive that,” continued Lekstrom. “There was a communication breakdown between the two parties, but I know they (the City) do have the documentation from BC Transit laying out what they thought they needed and then didn’t receive a response.”
He said that sometimes communities will bring an idea to BC Transit, but without a “formal response” from the community, the transit company takes that as meaning the “local government has decided to look at a different direction.”
“This is not an issue where BC Transit has dropped the ball from all the information I have been given,” he said. “We are more than happy to make sure we find a service that works for Fort St. John and the hospital.
“When something like this begins back in December 2011 and we’re not there yet, something has gone astray,” he said.
Ackerman said “who did what when” is not the conversation she wants to have.
“The issue is we have people, who do not have access to private vehicles, and we have seniors who are walking and what we need is a solution,” said Ackerman. “Unfortunately the City doesn’t provide buses and we’re in a partnership with an organization that has a process.
“We’re trying to leap over that process and have (Lekstrom) realize and recognize the importance of this bus,” she continued. “Of course we’re doing it for the people, but I think leveraging the LEED certification for that hospital (will make the Province listen).
She said she’d do whatever she could to “make sure they pay attention to this.”
Lekstrom said BC Transit is currently working on a solution to this issue.
“We would like to think that a short term (solution) could be (in place) by this fall,” said Lekstrom. “We’re trying to work as quickly as we can on this.”
He said that there aren’t “extra buses” sitting around.
“Buses have to be ordered,” he said. “I know that they’re (BC Transit) working right now; they want to identify the options to serve the new hospital.
“I think there have been a couple,” he continued.
He said as soon as they figure out the required “capacity” they would move on that.
Ackerman said the City is willing to work with BC Transit on both short and long-term solutions.
“As an alternative right now, we will even take one of their small para-transit buses and have a route that is focused on getting people from the Cultural Centre exchange out to the hospital and back,” she said.
Lekstrom pointed out that there is Handy Dart service to the hospital for those who qualify.
Waddell, who has volunteered to drive those in need, said that Handy Dart “costs them twice as much as the bus.”
Monthly bus fares for seniors are $26 according to the BC Transit website. Handy Dart costs $2 each direction per trip.
Waddell said he’s offered to drive them one direction to “defray” the cost.
“They would have to take the Handy Dart or other means to get back from (the hospital),” he said. “I don’t want this to turn into a taxi service; I’m just trying to help.”
He thought of the idea because Rotary Clubs in both Edmonton and Vancouver had a “cancer car service,” which he used when he was suffering with the illness.
“They’re very well organized and they actually own their own cars, which are manned by volunteers and drive patients to and from where they need to go,” he said.
He said he’s already checked with ICBC to ensure that his volunteerism is ok with them.
Ackerman said she thought Waddell had a “tremendous idea.”
“It amazes me how this community steps up to the plate,” she said. “As a volunteer, I know that I have extra insurance on my vehicle because I have transported other people around.”
Waddell said he’s looking for volunteers to help him.
“As the weather turns to fall and winter, (the lack of bus to the hospital is) going to become a huge problem.”