The eligibility criteria for the Northern Health Connections bus service has been expanded beyond those traveling to out-of-town medical appointments to include family members, people 60 years and older and those with mobility requirements.
The move comes just as the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure's BC North Bus service takes to the road next week to replace the loss of Greyhound's passenger service in northern B.C. The BC North Bus's long-haul coaches are not equipped with wheelchair lifts and those who need that level of help are being referred to Northern Health Connections.
"Making sure that people with accessibility requirements have access to reliable public transportation is a top priority for government," a Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure spokesperson said in a statement.
"That is why government has worked closely with Northern Health as they have modified their policies to expand their eligibility requirements to access their service. The Province sees Northern Health Connections as being a complement to BC Bus North, to help fill the gap left by Greyhound."
Those with medical appointments will be given priority in instances where a Northern Health Connections bus is full.
Although a step in the right direction, at least one advocate contends the better answer would have been to provide wheelchair accessible service on the BC North Bus services so those with mobility issues are not segregated from the general population.
"It's just plain bad planning," said the person, whose name has been withheld by request. "You can't tell me they couldn't find how many buses and made them all accessible; they could've bought accessible buses."
Northern Health Connections charges $10 to $20 per trip, compared to $35 to $45 for BC North Bus. BC Transit's service along Highway 16 between Prince George and Terrace charges $5 per trip for adults and $4 for students and seniors.
"This expansion provides access to services for some of the most vulnerable people in the communities of northern B.C., the elderly and those with mobility issues," Minister of Health Adrian Dix said of the expansion of Northern Health Connections. "Including an expanded definition of companions helps support families when their loved ones are receiving care in other communities."
In a teleconference on Tuesday, Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Claire Trevena emphasized that the BC North Bus is an interim service that will last a year while a more permanent solution is developed.
Local MLAs Shirley Bond, Mike Morris and John Rustad all welcomed the new service but added they are concerned a more long term solution remains uncertain.
“My colleagues and I offered suggestions to the transportation minister some time ago and I’m glad that some of our recommendations have been adopted,” Bond said in a statement the B.C. Liberals issued Wednesday. “We have enormous transportation challenges trying to connect distant communities and a more permanent solution is required.”