Transit dollars should be invested in community

In my opinion: Now is as good of a time as any to re-examine our traditional approach to regional transit operations

In communities outside the Lower Mainland, the delivery of public transit systems is coordinated by BC Transit, a Crown agency created by the provincial government in 1979.

BC Transit works with nearly 60 municipal governments to provide transportation services to 1.5 million passengers in communities across the province.

BC Transit works with local governments to contract operations to a wide range of private companies, public organizations, and non-profit agencies.

In Cowichan, BC Transit works with the Cowichan Valley Regional District to select operators

Operation of the Cowichan Valley regional transit system is currently contracted to one private company and two non-profit agencies. For the 2012 annual budget, the CVRD allocated nearly $2.2 million for contracting transit services, paid for largely through property taxes and rider fares.

Since 2005, conventional transit services — which provide the general population with scheduled services and operate on a fixed route — have been contracted to FirstCanada ULC, a private firm that operates regional transit systems in a growing number of communities. FirstCanada ULC also has the contract for the commuter service, which runs between Duncan and Victoria. These two contracts account for the lion’s share of CVRD spending on transit.

FirstCanada ULC is itself owned by FirstGroup PLC, a Scotland-based multinational that touts itself as the “leading transport operator in the UK and North America,” with annual revenues of more than $5 billion in North America alone.

The rest of our regional transit operations are provided by two locally based non-profit agencies with deep roots in the community. Combined, these contracts are worth a fraction of what goes to FirstCanada ULC.

Volunteer Cowichan, a non-profit founded to promote volunteerism in the community, has for 30 years operated handyDART, a custom transportation service for people with disabilities. Cowichan Lake Community Services Society, a non-profit that provides programs and facilities, has operated a transit service for rural residents in Youbou and Honeymoon Bay for the past 15 years.

Awarding public transit contracts to local non-profit agencies like Volunteer Cowichan and Cowichan Lake Community Services as opposed to a subsidiary of a multi-national corporation like FirstCanada ULC makes much more sense from a community economic development perspective.

Such an approach ensures our tax dollars and rider fares continue circulating in the community instead of immediately leaving the local economy and flowing into the coffers of a global corporation headquartered on the other side of the world.

As numerous studies have shown, spending or investing a dollar in a local organization has twice the economic benefit of doing so in one that is foreign-owned.

With the various public transit contracts in the Cowichan region up for renewal in the next two years, now is as good of a time as any for the CVRD to re-examine our traditional approach to regional transit operations and consider the benefits of contracting more of these services to locally based organizations with a genuine interest the long-term health of the community.

Rob Douglas is a past board member of Volunteer Cowichan who writes monthly for the Cowichan News Leader. He can be reached at