Tuktoyaktuk's free bus service resumed this week, helping residents commute six kilometres from the Reindeer Point neighbourhood to downtown in the year's coldest months.
The weekday service resumed operations on Tuesday and will run until the end of April. However, how the bus should be funded is now the subject of some debate.
The service is increasingly popular as more homes are built at Reindeer Point, away from the rest of the community.
The NWT Housing Corporation says it cannot build new units on land deemed unstable near Tuktoyaktuk's eroding shoreline. That's why construction is happening at the more sheltered Reindeer Point instead.
Mayor Erwin Elias told Cabin Radio the shift in where development takes place is making the bus a winter lifeline for people who must otherwise walk. But the service is entirely dependent on the hamlet's budget, he said.
Erwin thinks financial responsibility for the bus should fall on the territorial government.
He argues many Reindeer Point residents live there not by choice, but because that's where social housing is now available.
"Wherever [the NWT Housing Corporation] builds, that where you move," he said.
In an email to Cabin Radio, the housing corporation said it was not asked to contribute financially toward bus services – adding transportation is not one of the corporation's responsibilities.
Security or bus service?
Elias said the bus has operated seasonally for the past five or six years, typically starting in the new year and running for a few months. It helps residents get to doctor's appointments, for example, or pick up groceries.
"Lots of residents have no means to get to the community," the mayor told Cabin Radio by phone. "The government puts them out there and doesn't provide services."
He said it's only due to the "good heart" of the hamlet that the service is provided to residents. Other residents sometimes stop to offer pedestrians a ride to or from Reindeer Point.
Elias said the hamlet can only afford to offer the service for three months each year. Councillors, he added, regularly face choices such as paying for more bylaw and security positions – to handle increasing numbers of tourists now Tuktoyaktuk can be reached by road year-round – or a bus service for residents.
A map shows Tuktoyaktuk and Reindeer Point.
The Department of Municipal and Community Affairs said places like Tuktoyaktuk can use community public infrastructure funding, the federal gas tax, and occasional other federal programs to help fund projects like public transit.
"Those two programs provide a combined total of over $45 million annually to community governments," said department spokesperson Jay Boast by email.
"As an example, in 2018-19, the Hamlet of Paulatuk purchased a mini public transit van."
In its recently released mandate, the 19th Legislative Assembly promised to address a shortfall in community funding, stating it would close the gap by $5 million territory-wide in the course of its next three budgets.
Exactly how that gap will be closed, and what each community will receive, has still to be made clear.
Elias said an extra $50,000 would likely be enough to cover the cost of offering the bus service for a year.
In the 2020 season, the bus will complete one loop of the community daily, starting in Reindeer Point at 11am then making drops at Stanton’s and the Northern Store at 11:15am and 11:30am.
In the afternoon, the bus will pick up people at the Northern Store at 4:25pm and Stanton’s at 4:35pm, with a 4:45pm drop at Reindeer Point before heading back to town with any final passengers.