Kasper Transportation CEO Kasper Wabinski is ready to fight for his business, and he’s prepared to take the battle all the way to the Premier’s office.
“What choice do I have? I don’t have a choice,” said Wabinski.
Last week, Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC) announced new routes, linking Atikokan and the Rainy River District to Thunder Bay and Winnipeg by bus. The announcement came as a blow to Wabinski, who feels MPP Rickford had made promises not to allow the Crown corporation to interfere with private bus lines like Kasper.
The entrepreneur, who launched the regional freight and passenger service five years ago, feels MPP Greg Rickford violated his trust by appearing to negotiate a public private partnership aimed at improving transportation services in northern Ontario, only to cut off talks to announce the expansion of ONTC service to the region.
“Rickford promised to not step on the toes of private industry. He said he would not be anti-business. Doug Ford says Ontario is open for business, so I don’t understand why Doug Ford’s cabinet ministers are going against his message,” said Wabinski. “Every day he says he cares for small business, but this is backstabbing us.”
ONTC is a non-profit Crown corporation which reports directly to the Ministry of Transportation. Previously, it had reported to the Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines, Rickford’s current ministerial portfolio. It was moved to the MTO in April to “Centralize oversight of government agencies that deliver transportation services, while creating opportunities to improve service,” according to an MTO spokesperson. The ONTC is mandated to provide safe, reliable and affordable bus and rail service into northern communities, where it can be difficult for commercial carriers to operate.
But according to Wabinski, the routes Kasper operates have only been feasible because he keeps his operation small and competitive. In five years, he has grown his business from one vehicle and five drivers, to up to 76 drivers and a fleet of over 30 vehicles, running passenger vans across the region, as opposed to the full-size coach buses ONTC is using. Wabinski said COVID-19 has taken its toll on the company, but it has managed to stay profitable, noting ONTC can’t make the same claim. In financial records released March 31, ONTC ran a $65 million deficit for its last fiscal year.
Despite its reliance on taxpayer dollars, tickets for the new service cost less than what Kasper can offer, forcing him into competition with a Crown corporation, he charges.
“That’s anti-competitive behaviour. But here, who can I complain to? There is no one,” he said.
According to each company’s website, a trip from Fort Frances to Thunder Bay on Ontario Northland costs between $74 and $85, with the trip taking just under 12 hours, including a lengthy layover in Kenora. Kasper is a direct route, taking under five hours, but costing $111.
“Who wouldn’t want lower ticket prices? I would, too. But I need to break even,” he said.
“On a good day, we have five passengers on that route. On a poor day, we have one or zero passengers. How are they going to recover those expenses? It’s impossible,” said Wabinski.
“I think the taxpayer deserves financial responsibility. Rickford’s argument is, well, the east gets it, so the west should get it,” said Wabinski. “What happens in two or three years? Ontario Northland has a history of pulling out of places. Meanwhile, I’m here, we’re making it work, and we’re very successful at it,” he said.
Wabinski also alleges that the government could have used his company’s confidential financial information to work against him. During negotiations with several ministries, and an application to the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation (NOHFC), which MPP Rickford chairs, he was asked to share detailed financial statements and route information.
“They have engaged with us, over the last three years – ONTC, MTO, Ministry of Mining and Northern Development, and Minister Rickford’s office– in conversations, negotiations and discussions, on how to improve bus service in northern Ontario. They asked us to trust them in good faith; if I wanted them to work with us, I needed to share information with them,” said Wabinski.
A spokesperson for the MTO did not confirm that they were in negotiations with Wabinski, but a spokesperson for Rickford’s office denied the claim that his financial information was used against him. She said the information is only used for the grant application, and does not get shared with other ministries.
“The Minister has been clear that this was by no means an attack on Kasper or their routes. There’s lots of room for Kasper to fill in the gaps between these routes and to build out a fulsome transportation system in the region. This bus enables people to get up into the north, and get people to retail and health locations, so this has nothing to do with running a business out of town. This has everything to do with bringing more businesses to the region.”
But according to Wabinski, it will be a challenge for him to make a living off tributary routes.
“He says go to Red Lake. I’m already in Red Lake. He says go to Sioux Lookout. I’m already in Sioux Lookout. I already operate those routes. So, there’s nothing left. How can I do little small routes that are very unprofitable? Red Lake, we do only once a week, because there’s so little demand there.”
“And it’s logistically difficult to be everywhere,” continued Wabinski. “It’s hundreds of kilometres. I can’t be everywhere. Scattering yourself like that, the cost goes up.”
Rickford’s spokesperson noted that it is the MTO that designs ONTC transportation routes. The Transportation Minister’s office issued the following written statement:
“The Ontario government is committed to delivering safe and reliable public transportation for the people of Northern Ontario. These new routes provide passengers with more convenient connections and direct stops that will connect passengers to jobs, hospitals and other much needed essential services in the Northwest. Our government also understands the important role that the inter-community bus sector plays in providing transportation services to the people of Ontario, including those in the north. We will continue to work with our partners in this sector as we continue to review transportation initiatives that will help us to develop a modern and sustainable transportation system in Northern Ontario.”
The MTO went on to encourage inter-community carriers, “to explore the federal and provincial funding programs that have been put in place to support businesses during the COVID-19 outbreak.”
Rickford also echoed that sentiment in a written statement:
“I am proud to deliver on a promise to bring safe and reliable passenger bus service to the people in Kenora-Rainy River. The people of Northwestern Ontario deserve affordable bus transportation, as the people in Northeastern Ontario have received from the ONTC for years. Our government will continue to work closely with private carriers, including Kasper transportation, to build a robust passenger transportation network across the north.”
Wabinski feels the government has put him in a difficult spot, where he is forced to either close the business, and lose everything, or stay and compete with a taxpayer-funded business.
Wabinski feels he has no choice at this point but to appeal his case directly to the Premier. The Times contacted Doug Ford’s office, but they did not provide a reply as of press time.
“I don’t take a big paycheque, I reinvest every cent. I don’t buy fancy trucks for myself. I don’t have a fancy house. I reinvest all my resources to improve the bus service,” he said. “But now they’re jeopardizing millions of dollars invested by local investors, myself, five years of my life, and they’re leaving us in a very difficult position on what to do.”
He’s resolved to try to hang on and fight. The company is doubling down, to improve service, routes and prices.
“But it will come at a financial loss – financial hardship, emotional hardship,” he said. “But I’m from Poland. It’s in my blood to fight. I won’t stand for government injustice. I won’t stand for government abuse. I disagree with how they handled the whole situation. I want Doug Ford to fix it and I’m going to do my best to keep our customers and the public happy. What else can I do?”