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Operation of public transit in Central Okanagan questioned as strike looms

The impending strike by public transit drivers in the Central Okanagan is raising questions about how the regional service is operated.

The union has issued a strike deadline of Oct. 5 after weeks of escalating job action failed to put pressure on the employer.

“This is our second strike in six years with the same company. And, to me, if BC Transit was running it, we wouldn’t have a majority of the issues we’re having,” said Al Perissini, president of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1722.

While the delivery of the service is overseen by BC Transit, it’s a private company that runs it.

“In Kelowna here, we’re operated by First Transit, which is owned and operated by EQT out of Sweden,” Perissini told Global News.

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The model is used in many parts of the province, but not all.

Victoria, for instance, is operated solely by BC Transit — something the local union is calling for here in the region.

“There’s no reason why they can’t. Everything is here. They’ve got everything there. So why don’t they just step in and take over?” Perissini said.

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The union president said wages, which are about $5 less per hour than they are in Victoria, would be more competitive with BC Transit, allowing for better recruitment and retention of employees.

He also believes the system is underfunded and would be better off being operated by a public entity.

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“It would be better off if BC transit ran it. The money would stay here, be reinvested in transit and make transit better,” he said.

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The mayor of Kelowna, Colin Basran, said he’s frustrated with the possibility of another strike.

“This is going to affect thousands of people if this happens,” he said. “So It’s really frustrating, particularly for those riders who depend on this service day in and day out to get to their essential functions.”

Basran said the idea of BC Transit taking over is worth taking a look at.

“I would like to explore the option of BC Transit being the full provider of transit in our community,” he told Global News.  “That’s a topic of conversation I’ve had with the Minister of Transportation, who is open to exploring.”

BC Transit’s contract with First Transit expires at the end of next March.

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“We have asked BC Transit not to roll over the contract to First (Transit) and instead review how the service will be delivered in our community after this contract expires,” he told Global News.

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Global News reached out to the Ministry of Transportation if it’s considering having BC Transit take over, but it deferred to BC Transit.

In an email to Global News, BC Transit stated “Kelowna was one of the first systems where we introduced our regional contracting strategy, and it continues to be the most appropriate model for our regional transit systems. This strategy has since been applied successfully in other regions around the province, and we continue to improve the model.”

Perissini said the model may work in smaller communities, but not here.

“This is too big to be run by private,” he said. “Maybe some of the smaller centers can be run privately. But to me, the (private) transit system does not work.”

The two sides are slated to get back to the bargaining table on Tuesday, one day before the planned strike.

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