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Next stop for smaller, sleeker bus may not be in Greater Victoria

Sep 14 2012

A battle is brewing over B.C. Transit's plans to introduce a new type of community bus into local transit systems, including Greater Victoria.

B.C. Transit has agreed to buy 15 of the new Chinese-made Vicinity buses - at a delivered cost of $305,000 each - for various transit systems throughout the province, including five buses for the capital region.

But the plan is meeting resistance, and Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard, a Victoria transit commissioner, is predicting that resistance could spread as local transit systems push back against what they'll see as B.C. Transit's lack of consultation over the $4.5-million bus purchase.

"This is something quite important to our users - the type of bus - and the [Victoria] commission wasn't a part of the decision," Leonard said. "We weren't even asked for advice on the decision."

B.C. Transit, a provincial Crown corporation, has been working closely with Grande West Transportation and Yangzhou Yaxing Motor Coach to develop the Vicinity - a smaller, low-floor bus designed for community shuttle and rural bus service - and has been testing a prototype in communities around the province for the past 18 months.

On Grande West's website, B.C. Transit president and CEO Manuel Achadinha sings the new bus's praises.

"We can bring this into more residential areas," he says. "Vicinity is smaller, more narrow and is accepting to the customer but it still has all of the characteristics you would traditionally see on a 40-foot bus."

But not everyone is convinced.

After trying the 23-seat Vicinity prototype for two months, Penticton city council has decided to wait until the bus has been proven in other communities before putting any on its streets. The main concerns cited by both drivers and passengers during the trial centred on accessibility because the bus has only one door for both able-bodied people and wheelchair users, according to a Penticton city staff report.

Victoria transit commissioners, also citing concerns over accessibility, decided this week they want to consult an accessibility advisory group before agreeing to take five of the new buses.

Ben Williams, president of Canadian Auto Workers Local 333, which represents Victoria area transit drivers, said he was pleased when Victoria transit commissioners delayed the Vicinity approval.

"We don't believe it's the right bus for Victoria. We know that you will not be able to keep a schedule when you have that single door," Williams said.

"With this Vicinity bus, if you have 39 or 40 passengers on the bus, the wheelchair would be getting off the bus and nobody else could be getting off the bus."

Penticton Mayor Dan Ashton said B.C. Transit "is on the right track" with the Vicinity and if it can iron out a few issues - like the single access and the fact it has space for only one wheelchair - his community would likely take a second look. (B.C. Transit says the new bus will accommodate two wheelchairs.)

Achadinha said the bigger conventional buses are about twice the cost of the Vicinity, which is about 30 per cent more fuel efficient.

"Everybody wants them but we've only got 15. We were trying to keep five here in Victoria," he said.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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