VANCOUVER -- TransLink has updated the mayors’ council on its dire financial situation and revealed there’s been a 30 per cent increase in ridership since the system’s lowest point a few weeks ago, urging the public to be patient as they take steps to avoid crowding at busy stations during peak times.

In a presentation to the group later posted to YouTube, CEO Kevin Desmond said overall ridership has risen to 20 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. There are now 317,000 boardings on the system today, compared to 240,000 per day at its low point — a far cry from the 1.5 million boardings per day before the pandemic.

“We’re welcoming (travellers) back, we have a long, long way to go,” said Desmond.

He also said TransLink is “innovating every day” as the transit company hopes to recoup some of its financial losses when buses can resume charging passengers on Monday, when front-door boarding and tapping of Compass Cards can resume.

By then, all buses will have been fitted with barriers to protect drivers.

Mayors also heard a recap of TransLink’s “Safe Operating Action Plan,” which includes enhanced cleaning, limiting fare gate access and recommending that all travellers wear non-medical masks.

“As ridership now begins to come back, we are going to see more ‘crowding’ and I think our definition of crowding in this COVID era and the notion of social distancing is a very different consideration,” said Desmond.

He told the council that while bus drivers have been directed to consider the bus full when they’re at two-thirds capacity, TransLink’s aim is to operate the SeaBus and SkyTrain systems at 50 per cent capacity. This comes as the province has agreed to help fund the system and pre-pandemic service levels have generally resumed in all of TransLink’s service areas, except the West Coast Express which is still operating only 3 of its 5 daily trains.

“We will continue to monitor ridership on a daily basis throughout the system,” said Desmond, who expects ridership to come back gradually over the long term.

When it comes to the financial picture, Geoff Cross, TransLink’s vice president of transportation planning and policy, told the council much is up in the air as the company awaits word from the provincial and federal governments on what kind of funding they’ll be providing for operations, as well as potential stimulus spending toward infrastructure projects.

“There are conversations we’ve been having and pushing the federal government to maybe loosen the strings on some of their other programs, whether that be the federal gas tax or that Investing in Canada infrastructure program to be able to use some of the unallocated funds or projects that we may defer — could we use some of that funding toward filling this (operational) gap?” said Cross.

One of the projects now in jeopardy is the Expo Line SkyTrain extension to Fleetwood.

Previously, TransLink had warned it was losing up to $75 million per month due to an 83 per cent decline in ridership and said service cuts to the entire system could be long-lasting. Now, however, the transit authority has rolled back temporary layoff notices as the province said it would be working with them on operational costs as B.C. entered phase two of its reopening plan. 

Cross told the mayors’s council that TransLink expects to update its regional investment plan, including the future of the LRT expansion, in the fall when it knows more from senior levels of government about their funding plans. The very real possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 infections, as well as the shift between tighter and looser restrictions depending on how many people have the virus, means there are no easy answers or clear path forward, he said.

“You’ll have some tough decisions to make,” he said.