'We're doing our best to keep at it': Alberta intercity bus companies plea for pandemic relief to keep engines running


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Four Alberta intercity bus companies fear services to rural communities will come to a stop by Christmas if the province doesn’t start sharing federal COVID-19 relief funding.

The owners of Cold Shot, Northern Express, Sundog and J & L Shuttle Service, which combined serve more than 100 communities, sent a joint letter to the UCP-led government on May 25 asking for operating aid. The companies argued federal relief such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) and Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) don’t go far enough and if support doesn’t come soon, they may have to close.

Transportation Minister Ric McIver in a letter dated Sept. 4 said the province is monitoring the situation closely but there were no plans at that time to provide an operating subsidy to intercity bus companies. Instead, the companies were advised to use federal relief programs.

Cold Shot president Sunny Balwaria said at a news conference Thursday in Edmonton the Safe Restart Agreement between the federal government and the provinces has provided millions of dollars in support for city transit but nothing for intercity companies like his. He said  both are essential services and should receive similar support.


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“We are happy to see that there is an acknowledgement of in-city transit and that there is funding available,” he said. “We are just trying to impress to the public as well as to the government to acknowledge that we’re also an important bus line for rural boarders to connect people to their work, with their doctor appoints (in) major cities like Edmonton. We’re doing our best to keep at it but it’d not be too long (until we shut down).”

The more than $19-billion in federal aid was announced in July. Alberta promised to match $233 million to help cover municipal operating costs during the pandemic and $70 million in public transit operating costs, bringing the total value of the deal to $606 million. The agreement doesn’t mention any specific support for intercity transit. However, Premier Jason Kenney, in his response letter to the agreement, does mention providing transportation supports to vulnerable populations most at risk.

Balwaria said since the start of the pandemic in March, ridership has significantly decreased. In January, for example, there were roughly 6,000 tickets sold but over the past few months, that has dropped to roughly 1,500. He said the cost of fuel alone can range up to $90,000.

Seating capacity was also dropped by half in order to give riders more physical distancing.

Balwaria said he’s still running at a loss and requiring to take on more debt even at 50 per cent capacity and scaling back the number of routes or lanes.


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“We’re not looking for too much, just enough to protect our services,” he said.

J & L Shuttle Service president Sam Sayegh said he’s in a similar position as Balwaria and has had to reduce service to roughly 25 per cent. He said not enough revenue is coming in to manage his company property.

“It’s just, does the bus go today or does it not?” he said. “If you get three people that want to go to Calgary, then I have to send the bus up there. It doesn’t pay for the fuel, it doesn’t pay for the employee, it doesn’t pay for anything but I have an obligation to my riders. I have to send that bus up.”

McKenzie Kibler, press secretary for McIver, said in an email the ministry recognizes the important role intercity buses play but the government is not considering an operating subsidy.

“Alberta’s government faces a fiscal reckoning due to the triple impact of the OPEC+ oil crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the global recession,” he said. “We continue to encourage bus operators to access other federal and provincial supports set up in response to COVID-19, including deferring the collection of corporate and education property tax for businesses, deferring WCB premiums and utility payments, and applying for targeted programs like the (CEBA) and (CEWS).”

— With files from Ashley Joannou




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