WHEN northwestern local government and First Nations leaders and others meet today in Smithers to discuss ways to improve regional transportation options along Hwy16, they’ll have one working system to study.
It’s the Northern Health Connections bus service operated by the Northern Health Authority.
Using both highway coaches for long distance travel and mini-buses to connect communities, the service transports northwest residents to hospitals in Prince George and down south and to and from hospitals in northwestern communities.
Six highway coaches make four round trips a week along Hwy16 from Prince Rupert to Prince George and then south while five mini-buses are used for trips connecting smaller communities.
The coaches, the size of a regular Greyhound-style bus, seats 40 people while mini-buses seat 28.
Four wheelchairs can be accommodated on coaches and two on minibuses.
A patient going from Terrace to Prince George pays $40 a round trip while one going from Terrace to Vancouver pays $80 round trip.
As efficient and a regularly-scheduled service as it is in connecting northwestern communities, there’s little chance of adapting it in response to calls for more regional public transportation.
That’s because the service was specifically set up for people requiring medical care and its licence allows it to transport patients from one location to another for treatment as long as they have a doctor’s note or similar note showing the need for them to get to another place for medical treatment, says Jonathon Dyck from Northern Health.
Northern Health is a health services provider and does not provide public transport, says Dyck.
“We have a licence to provide healthcare transport. That is where our focus is and will continue to be,” said Dyck.
The health authority does, however, combine with local governments and First Nations in the Terrace-Kitimat area on a bus service used by both members of the public and those needing to travel to local hospitals and medical clinics.
The weekday only service, in the form of a mini-bus operated by BC Transit, extends from Kitamaat Village through Kitimat up Hwy37 South to Terrace and west to Kitsumkalum and New Remo and east to Thornhill then along Hwy16 to the Kitselas First Nation’s Gitaus subdivision.
Costs are shared by BC Transit, the health authority, the Haisla First Nation, the Kitimat-Stikine regional district, the City of Terrace, the Kitsumkalum First Nation and the Kitselas First Nation.
The Smithers symposium was organized by the province in response to calls for more public transit connecting communities along Hwy16 and communities to the north and south as an alternative to hitchhiking or other forms of riskier transport.
Advocates point to the cases of murdered and missing women along Hwy16 as a reason why safer transportation is required.