If you see a 72-year-old woman on the side of Highway 101 with her thumb out, it might be Heather Jeal, trying to get a lift to Vancouver.
“I’m a Baby Boomer, I hitchhiked around Europe solo. Mind you I was a lot younger then. That was 50 years ago. Also, when my idiot husband thought we should live in Squamish for a year, I hitchhiked to downtown Vancouver to work as an executive assistant every day – and I was expecting my daughter at the time.”
Heather, clearly a toughie, might really hitchhike to Vancouver – but she is being a little tongue in cheek in this interview. She told qathet Living that she was “shocked” when she went online in October to book a seat on the Sunshine Coast Connector, and found that the only bus service to the City wouldn’t be running again until December 22, for the Christmas holiday.
Heather has spent more than 30 years living in various communities around the Sunshine Coast. There has always been a bus to Vancouver. When she moved to Powell River in 2021, she assumed there would be a bus. Although she drives, she would rather not do so in the city for safety (and peace of mind) reasons.
“My experience with the Connector is it’s a great option,” she said. “But we’ve become so reliant on our cars, and I am no exception. But this is a unique time, with gas prices as high as they are and my 2004 Honda is having issues with starter. I promised myself that I’m going to try to walk more and take the bus to reduce impact on the environment.”
In fact, the Sunshine Coast Connector has been following the same annual schedule for the past three years, according to the operations manager, Dmitry Tyunin. It leaves a gap in the fall when there are fewer customers, and offers regular service during the summer and over holidays.
“As per our licensing requirements, this is the minimum service we are obligated to provide,” he explained, noting that running the service year-round would mean losing money – and going out of business. Subsidies have been spotty.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, we received a small fund that barely covered our fuel expenses, enabling us to run during the winter and spring in addition to the summer,” explained Dmitry. “However, due to the combination of low ridership and high operating costs, we can only afford to provide transportation services during the specified dates.”
All municipalities and both regional districts on the Sunshine Coast are aware of the gap in social infrastructure, he said, but so far, no long-term solution has been forthcoming. On October 17, the Island Coastal Economic Trust unveiled a “new fund to enhance regional passenger transportation.” It’s $230,000 from BC’s Ministry of Transportation; businesses such as Dmitry’s can apply for bwteen $5,000 and $20,000 to “enhance inter-community passenger transportation services.”
Dmitry said small bursts of cash won’t solve qathet’s regional transportation woes.
“Even if we are fortunate enough to secure this funding, it would barely cover our fuel expenses for a couple of months, which seems quite insufficient,” he said.
“It is disheartening to see the lack of consideration given to transportation on the Sunshine Coast, as it is an essential aspect of the residents’ lives.”
Back in 2021, Rae Fitzgerald and Diane Wolyniec campaigned for a public bus – run by BC Transit – from Powell River to Vancouver. With the help of several other elder women, they collected 5,000 signatures and many, many stories outlining the human cost of not having a bus: missed medical appointments; not seeing grandchildren; and more.
Rae and Diane took the petition to both Powell River City Council an the qathet Regional District board – where it seems to have died, according to Rae. Two years later, there is no public bus, or plan for a public bus, or staff follow up on whether there might be a way to get a public bus.
“I have never been so disillusioned in my life,” said Rae. “When I think of all the old ladies standing out in the cold in February collecting those 5,000 signatures. That was the end of my political involvement.
“Now on Facebook I see all these comments wondering why we don’t have a bus to Vancouver. I used to reply to them [and ask them to lobby for a bus]. Now I say $#@! it. I’m done.”
Meanwhile, some folks are hitchhiking.
Heather took her frustration to Facebook, and eventually secured a ride.
But of course, she didn’t find answers about why qathet doesn’t have a reliable bus service to Vancouver – as other communities have managed to string together.
“My daughter’s documentary was premiering in Victoria in July,” Heather said. “I took the ferry over, and I was able to connect BC Transit buses all the way down the island. It took a while, but it was only about $30. Cheaper than flying, and cheaper than the private buses.”
Heather has taken the bus her entire life.
She calls qathet’s transit system “quirky.”
Pieta Woolley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, qathet Living