MUSKOKA – All it seemed to take was one dissenting voice.
The Ontario Highway Transport Board has forced Hammond Transportation to stop operating its new bus service between Muskoka and Barrie as of Wednesday, Oct. 17.
“It’s due to complaints by an existing carrier,” said Greg Hammond of Hammond Transportation.
The bus company had been in talks with the District of Muskoka’s transportation committee as well as other non-profit organizations in the region for more than a year. Hammond said those talks, along with transportation studies, showed a need for increased transportation in the region, so his company applied for a temporary licence to operate a five-day-a-week bus service to colleges and hospitals in Orillia and Barrie.
He said his company is licensed to operate throughout Muskoka and Simcoe County and felt it had the necessary authority to operate the service, which it launched late September.
“Just before it started, we received calls from the Ontario Highway Transport Board saying there were two existing carriers who had concerns about us operating,” said Hammond. “The service started, but we felt it was just going to be a few days before we got the temporary authority.”
A petition of 577 signatures supporting the new service accompanied the application for the temporary licence, he said.
But Muskokan company did not get the licence. And continuing the service without the licence would mean fines of up to $5,000.
The company is still applying for a permanent licence, which is a longer process that will take at least a month.
“We’re still going forward with the (licence) application. We believe there is a need that is not being met now,” said Hammond. “Once we have the required authority we will reinstate the service.”
Hammond did not mention who filed the complaint against his company, but the Ontario Highway Transport Board ruling stated the complainant was from the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission. It operates a bus service between Toronto and Northern Ontario.
The board stated in its decision that a temporary licence may be granted if there is evidence indicating an urgent need for a service that no other licensed carrier is providing.
It stated there was not enough evidence to show urgent need for a new service.
It also deemed the petition signatures insufficient evidence that the service was needed because there was no indication that those who signed the petition intended to use it.
Ontario Northland’s argument that it already provided sufficient service also played a role in the decision.
However, the board noted its decision regarding the temporary licence could not be used to argue against the company’s application for a permanent licence in future.
Michael Potvin, director of passenger operations for Ontario Northland, said licences are the most valued part of a transportation business and Ontario Northland did not want its scheduled service unduly threatened.
“The (scheduled service) aspect is something that is really what Ontario Northland builds its service base on,” said Potvin. “And the territory between North Bay and Toronto is an extremely important area of service to us.”
He said Ontario Northland runs four roundtrips between Muskoka and Barrie per day Monday through Thursday and five roundtrips on Friday and Saturday. Often those busses run half-full.
When another transportation company applies for a licence, said Potvin, Ontario Northland evaluates the application to determine whether the licence in question would adversely affect its business.
“If it is going to impact us adversely, we do submit a challenge to it to try to protect our business and the interests of our service,” he said.
But the publicly funded agency is competing with private business by opposing the application. However, Potvin commented that Ontario Northland is mandated to provide a public bus service in Northern Ontario and said government-funded transportation plays an important role across the province.
The province announced in March it would sell off Ontario Northland’s transportation and communications assets within two years. But Potvin said the decision to submit an objection to Hammond Transportation’s licence application had nothing to do with divestment, nor with wanting to make the bus assets look more attractive as a business model to potential buyers in future.
District of Muskoka chair John Klinck said he was shaking his head.
“I’m a little concerned that a Crown corporation could interfere with the private sector’s ability to provide competition or choice for consumers,” said Klinck.
He said it bothered him that a Muskoka business trying to enhance its service while benefiting the community would be prevented from doing so.
Klinck said the district endorsed the company’s new service as a way to increase transportation options in the region in a relatively cost-effective manner.
He was optimistic the licencing would be sorted out.
“I mentioned to somebody last week that I intended to try out (the new bus service) and go down to see one of my boys who is at Georgian College,” said Klinck. “I guess I’ll have to wait a little longer for that.”