Abbotsford to get more buses, but Chilliwack's transit plea denied

Fare review may bring higher fares across Fraser Valley transit system

Expansions to transit in Chilliwack have been denied funding from the provincial government. đź“· Tyler Olsen

This story first appeared in the Fraser Valley Current’s daily newsletter for May 14, 2024. To get local news delivered for free to your email inbox every weekday morning, subscribe here.

Abbotsford and Mission may finally get increased transit service in their communities. Chilliwack, on the other hand, may only get higher fares. At least in the short-term.

Officials and politicians across the central and eastern Fraser Valley have been planning and budgeting for better bus service for years with little to show for it.

The costs of transit projects are generally split between municipalities and the provincial government (via BC Transit). And although the provincial government has bragged about its dedication to improving public transit, officials in Victoria have failed to pony up their share of the money needed to add more buses in the Fraser Valley. (The government blamed the pandemic and the 2021 floods for derailing its transit plans.)

With a provincial election on the way, that looks set to finally change, at least in Abbotsford and Mission. Folks further east will have to wait longer, though plans may be in the works on that front too.

Abbotsford and Mission

The biggest improvement is coming to Abbotsford, where several new buses will allow for more frequent peak-hour buses on Routes 1 (Highstreet/UV) and 2 (Highstreet/McMillan).

The two routes are among the busiest in the city, but buses still arrive at stops only every 20 minutes or so—well below the frequency envisioned by Abbotsford’s 2018 Transportation and Transit Master Plan. That document envisioned the creation of a “rapid transit corridor” along the system’s Route 1 corridor, which connects HighStreet, Sevenoaks Mall, historic downtown, and UFV along South Fraser Way and McCallum Road. The plan envisioned “minimum 15-minute service” by 2020. That didn’t happen—and hasn’t occurred in the years since. But the new expansion, which amounts to a 6% increase in transit hours in Abbotsford, should push service toward that target. (Route 2 runs from HighStreet to the McMillan area, while also providing services to the Townline Hill, Clearbrook, Mill Lake areas.)

In Mission, where Mayor Paul Horn has frequently advocated for more provincial transit funding, that community’s bus system will get Sunday improvements on its four busiest routes—including Route 31, which connects the city with Abbotsford. (The other routes slated for better Sunday service are routes 32, 33, and 34.) Those upgrades are coming this September, along with “additional hours for improving on-time performance, frequency, and service reliability,” according to BC Transit.

Next January, the city is slated to get a route that will provide transit to Silver Creek Industrial Park on the western edge of town.

Both Abbotsford and Mission will also get more HandyDART service on Sundays and holidays.

Mission’s Route 32 is one of those slated for an upgrade next year. 📷 Grace Kennedy

FVX

The province has also committed money to increase the number of Fraser Valley Express buses running between Chilliwack and Lougheed Highway.

BC Transit revealed last fall that it hoped to add buses to the overcrowded route, but it warned those ambitions were dependent on provincial funding. (Read our story here.) BC Transit had hoped to add 2,600 (annual) transit hours to the route, which often operates at or beyond capacity, by assigning three new buses. The three buses would allow for two additional daily trips, hopefully freeing up space for riders currently forced to stand. Now, those plans look set to become a reality—though not until next January, according to a BC Transit spokesperson.

The new buses won’t spend all their time carting passengers along Highway 1. As BC Transit noted last fall, a lack of storage space at Chilliwack’s bus facility means that the vehicles would need to be parked and serviced in Abbotsford, leaving 1,100 of the 2,600 hours dedicated specifically to getting the vehicles to and from the depot in that city.

Chilliwack

Although the province has committed money to add buses in Abbotsford and Mission, Chilliwack’s standard bus system won’t see any upgrades. The city had asked BC transit to provide more bus service this year, but a spokesperson said its pleas have been rebuffed.

“Chilliwack City Council has consistently approved municipal funding in support of transit expansion, however the Province has not committed funding for the last three years,” a city spokesperson wrote in an email to The Current. “Due to our partnership model with BC Transit, we can only carry out expansion if the province also budgets their share of the funds.”

HandyDART service in Chilliwack will be expanded by 90 minutes on weekdays until 6:30pm and on Sundays to match existing Saturday service. But the spokesperson called the lack of support for a conventional bus system “perplexing,” given strong ridership numbers.

One challenge is the same storage crunch impacting the Fraser Valley Express.

BC Transit wrote last fall that a lack of an operations and maintenance facility—essentially a yard and building to store and service buses—was a “barrier to future expansions for both the City of Chilliwack and FVRD transit services.”

Bus transit facilities aren’t cheap. A new transit maintenance and operations site that opened in Abbotsford in 2020 cost nearly $29 million to build. The province and the federal government split the bulk of that cost. So transit expansions to the east now seem likely to depend on the construction of a similar site.

Fortunately for (future) riders, such a facility is now in the works, BC Transit told The Current.

A spokesperson wrote in an email that the agency has bought a site (or, as BC Transit calls it, “a strategic land holding asset”) that would house an operations and maintenance facility. BC Transit says it’s creating a plan for such a facility, though additional funding applications would still be needed to “potentially operationalize this facility.”

Funding for Abbotsford’s transit site was announced in 2016, as the then-BC Liberals geared up for a provincial election. With a provincial election coming this fall and a federal election next year, BC Transit officials will know that politicians might be particularly amenable to green-lighting a new Chilliwack facility in the near future.

Cultus Lake and Harrison

The FVRD is also set to adopt a “transit future action plan” that was created years ago in tandem with the City of Chilliwack. That plan lays out what upgrades officials would like to see—and tells BC Transit that local government will fund its share of new routes.

The FVRD’s plan suggests the need for a new potential bus for a route that currently connects Chilliwack and Cultus Lake. It also seeks to add Sunday and holiday service for the bus serving Harrison Hot Springs and Agassiz.

But those plans don’t have money backing them yet. And, almost inevitably, they will depend on finding a place to store and service more buses in the region.

The fares

The cost to ride the bus in the valley may also be set for an increase next year.

Mission staff told their council last week that all the valley’s BC Transit-operated systems* are “undertaking a fare policy review” in 2025. The final decision will ultimately be left to local governments because they retain all fare revenue, a BC Transit spokesperson noted.

*Buses in Langley are operated by Translink

The review will “include potential fare structure options with the projected revenue and ridership impacts of each option.”

Although BC Transit isn’t confirming that fares will increase, that seems like the most-likely outcome—especially in Chilliwack—given what Mission council has been told.

Mission’s council says a review would seek to provide “fare alignment” across the Fraser Valley region. In other words, the goal would be that it would cost the same amount to ride the bus in Abbotsford as it does in Chilliwack.

That’s not currently the case. Chilliwack riders pay 25 cents less for a single ride and 65 cents less for a day pass than counterparts in Abbotsford and Mission. So to achieve parity, fares would either need to be cut in Abbotsford and Mission or hiked in Chilliwack. And bus fare prices, like other prices, don’t typically decrease over time.

It also seems likely that fares may go up across the entire region.

In describing the fare review, Mission staff noted that “transit fares in the Central Fraser Valley were last adjusted in 2013, and have therefore not kept up with inflation and rising costs to provide transit service.”

That would hint at a desire to increase fares to cover the increased costs of transit, and help finance the planned expansions to the system.

The final say, though, will rest with local politicians. Local governments receive all fare revenue to help cover their share of operation costs. As such, they will decide on whether to raise fares or not. The BC Transit spokesperson said that decision won’t take place until next year, after the fare review. That review will also include an analysis of the potential impact of different fare options on ridership.

This story first appeared in the Fraser Valley Current’s daily newsletter for May 14, 2024. To get local news delivered for free to your email inbox every weekday morning, subscribe here.

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