Radium, Canal Flats enthusiastic about proposal, but Invermere council remains tepid

By Steve Hubrecht
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As reported in last week’s edition of the Pioneer, the Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK) has put forward a proposal to significantly expand the existing public transit system in the Columbia Valley. But what exactly do local elected officials think of this plan?

In recent weeks, the RDEK has shared its proposal — which is still in very preliminary stages —with the local municipal governments here in the valley, to get a sense of their appetite for the project. The proposal has met with enthusiasm by the councils of the Village of Canal Flats and the Village of Radium Hot Springs, and is viewed favourably by both of the valley rural regional electoral district directors, but the response from Invermere council has been distinctly lukewarm.

At recent council meetings, Radium and Canal Flats councils both indicated they would be willing to consent to the expansion proposal on behalf of electors. But after discussing the topic at two council meetings, Invermere council did not seem to have the same appetite for such consent, with Invermere councillors instead indicating a desire to have Invermere residents vote on the matter in a referendum (which would be held at the same time as municipal elections this coming fall).

Currently the Columbia Valley public transportation system, jointly managed by the RDEK and BC Transit, runs bus services twice a day, Monday through Friday, from Edgewater, through Radium, to the Invermere hospital, and from Canal Flats, through Fairmont Hot Springs and Windermere, to the Invermere hospital. 

The proposal, in a nutshell, would see the northern route (from Edgewater) doubled to four runs per day, would add an extra within-Invermere route, and would add weekend services on all routes on Saturday and Sunday.

“It will benefit everybody up and down the valley,” Radium Mayor Clara Reinhardt told the Pioneer. “It’s a way for people without vehicles to be able to access employment opportunities, various services, and schools. If we do this (expansion) correctly, it will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Reinhardt said the benefit for outlying communities such as Edgewater is very apparent, but that even the bigger centres such as Radium, and indeed Invermere, will see gains if the proposal comes to fruition.

“It can make things better for Invermere because it will get people into town there, to work at the businesses there, to shop there,” she said.

Reinhardt noted that the way the Columbia Valley public transportation system currently works is costly and isn’t really meeting the needs of local people.

“If you want to have public transit here in the valley, you’ve got to give it a chance. We’ve got to give it our best shot. If we just try to do a little bit here, and then a little bit there, that won’t work, not for a transportation system. You need to do it right and really try,” she added. “That’s my feeling, that we should give it our best shot. If after three years, it is not resonating with residents, we can cut our losses and go to Plan B.”

Reinhardt noted that not everybody would use the expanded public transportation system, but said “sometimes you have to do things that are for the greater good, even if they don’t benefit everybody. We do that often, with trails, or ice rinks, or other recreation amenities. Not everybody recreates on trails or in rinks. But collectively we do what we can have and improve those amenities, because it’s the right thing to do for the greater good. Public transportation is the same.”

Former Canal Flats Chief Administrative Officer Adrian Bergles, on one of his last days of work at Canal Flats last week, told the Pioneer that “Canal Flats council do see a benefit to the (transportation) service expansion. It gives Canal Flats residents better access to schools and quite possibly to better employment opportunities.”

“Residents have told us that the current service doesn’t meet the needs of residents and that weekend and evening expansion would provide improved access to affordable housing, employment, education, shopping, recreation, and social events and will mitigate the impact of fossil fuels on climate change. These are all critical to a healthy and sustainable community,” RDEK rural Area F Director Susan Clovechok told the Pioneer.

“If we can get the details worked out, the expansion could be beneficial to Area G residents,” RDEK rural Area G Director Gerry Wilkie told the Pioneer. “And it becomes even more important with the recent large increases in fuel costs.”

Invermere council members, however, were not as wholly convinced.

“We will not be going with a consent approach,” Invermere Mayor Al Miller said during the most recent Invermere council meeting. “Our decision is to leave it up to our citizens in a referendum.”

Miller elaborated that councillors feel there is not enough detailed information about the expansion in the RDEK’s proposal for Invermere council to consent on behalf of electors. He outlined that Invermere council is not excited about having BC Transit as the co-manager of the proposed expansion, saying “from what we’ve seen, BC Transit doesn’t work too well for the Columbia Valley.”

Invermere Councillor Greg Anderson added, to clarify, that he is “for sure in favour of the idea of transit expansion, giving better access to schools, and bringing in off-site workers. But I don’t know if B.C. Transit is the best delivery agent for us. I’d like to look at other options.”

“The current ridership and scheduling is not ideal. It often seems like BC Transit uses a one-size fits all model, and that just doesn’t work well out here in the Columbia Valley,” said Invermere Councillor Gerry Taft. 

Taft pointed to the cost, which could work out to $75 per year in extra taxes for a $500,000 home, and asked “does the average Invermere resident see $75 worth of benefit? I don’t think so…Unless ridership numbers increase astronomically, it just may not be of benefit at all to most of the residents of Invermere.” He joked that perhaps it would be more efficient for Invermere to simply pay cab fares for the few Invermere residents who would use the expanded transportation service.

By not consenting on behalf of electors and instead seeking to put the proposal to referendum. “We are pushing the decision to Invermere taxpayers…And also making the RDEK justify the expansion to Invermere taxpayers,” added Taft.