B.C.’s private bus companies at risk without aid, firms say

The pandemic will kill most of B.C.’s motor-coach companies if the provincial government does not come to the table with some sort of aid package, industry executives say.

In a letter to Transportation Minister Claire Trevena and Tourism Minister Lisa Beare, asking for support on flexible insurance options, more access to loans and the extension of some existing government aid programs, the B.C. Trucking Association said “a majority of motor coach companies will not survive COVID-19.”

The claim is not exaggerated, said John Wilson, chief executive of Victoria-based Wilson’s Transportation Group.

“Ninety-five per cent of [motor coaches] are off the road right now in North America, it’s huge,” said Wilson, who has had to take drastic measures to keep his company running.

Wilson’s, which operates the B.C. Ferries Connector bus service between downtown Victoria and downtown Vancouver, the Tofino Bus Company, Gray Line Sightseeing and charter services, has parked 95 per cent of its bus fleet and laid off more than 200 employees.

“We have skimmed it down to the bare minimum,” said Wilson, adding they have been able to keep some people employed and some services running, like their industrial shuttles in Campbell River and Ucluelet by accessing various government programs.

Wilson said those programs are vital.

The entire hospitality and tourism industry — hit hardest and likely longest by the economic impact of the pandemic — is still waiting for someone to help, he said. “I think someone has to step up whether that’s the feds or the province or the financial institutions or a combination of them.”

Wilson thinks each one of those groups is waiting for the others to act first, but he’s sure if none of them do, there will be an economic bloodbath in the industry.

“I’m surprised there weren’t more shutdowns and bankruptcies in June; I thought, given the situation, June would be the month people might pack it in.” He said he’s not sure if that means there is optimism in the air or the inevitable has been delayed.

Bus companies like his, which have fleets of expensive coaches costing around $600,000 each, cannot afford to have them parked, especially between May and September when “all of the money is made,” he said.

That’s why the trucking association has petitioned the province for help.

The request includes allowing bus companies to get insurance on an as-needed basis, an exemption from the employer health tax for 2019 and 2020, some form of rent relief, access to interest-free government loans and that the province go to bat with Ottawa to extend the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy.

Wilson is re-starting portions of his business this week. The sightseeing buses that run hop-on-hop-off tours and the coaches to Butchart Gardens will start on Friday, with the B.C. Ferries Connector service scheduled to start July 10.

“I don’t expect anywhere near regular revenue. I’d just be happy with 30 per cent given the situation,” he said.


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