Fletcher: Ferry fleet sails into a fiscal storm

Bad past policies of BC Ferries aggravating current financial problems for ferry service.

The B.C. government has rolled out its plan to reform BC Ferries, continuing the structural and cultural shift that started when the Crown corporation was quasi-privatized in the early years of B.C. Liberal rule.

Politically, there is a lot at stake here. Premier Christy Clark’s year-long “families first” routine boils down to two projects, reining in rate increases at BC Hydro and BC Ferries.

For weeks, Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom has been signaling there is bad news to come. Sparring with the NDP in question period, he has bluntly and repeatedly said the days of fully staffed vessels sailing with a third (or less) of their capacity are coming to an end.

Tabling legislation to give the ferry commissioner new powers over service levels as well as fares, Lekstrom revealed $80 million worth of sugar to help the tough medicine go down over the next four years. That’s on top of the $150 million annual subsidy.

Quadra Island politician Jim Abram was first out with the predictable view of the Gulf Islands elite, dismissing this sum as paltry. It’s difficult to capture how self-centred and insulting this is, but I’ll try.

Consider that the B.C. transportation ministry spent $460 million last year on highway operations. That’s for the province’s entire vast, weather-battered road network. This year’s operating subsidy to coastal ferries is approaching $200 million, nearly half of that. And increasingly, it goes to subsidize getaways for those who choose isolation for its own sake.

Basic financial information also exposes the falsity of NDP ferry critic Garry Coons’ one-note critique. It’s part of the highway system, he constantly says, comparing empty ferries with empty roads while ignoring the mandatory ferry staff and other costs.

This fiscal-fantasy policy implies another huge increase in subsidy, much of it a transfer from working people to the idle rich who can afford Gulf Islands real estate. Coons can’t say how much, probably because he has no idea.

A key legislative change will allow BC Ferries to use revenues from its profitable main routes to subsidize little-used runs. This would be even more important if those revenues hadn’t been squandered. And no, I’m not talking about the “fast ferries.”

The story is detailed in Head On!, a 2004 book by former B.C. deputy highways minister R.G. Harvey. He describes how the Mike Harcourt government completed the “gross error” of building a new terminal at Duke Point, near Nanaimo.

This run was to take truck and other traffic from congested Horseshoe Bay to the mid-Island from Tsawwassen. An alternative route from Richmond to Gabriola Island, with bridges to Vancouver Island, had been quietly scuttled after the W.A.C. Bennett government was defeated by the NDP’s Dave Barrett in 1972.

On a map, it’s clear this would have been the shortest route. Harvey says it would have cut travel time by half, and likely replaced the congested Horseshoe Bay dock. But Barrett would have had to tell his Nanaimo ferry union supporters that they were losing half their work hours.

Tsawwassen to Duke Point is 65 km, compared to 54 km from Horseshoe Bay to Departure Bay. A ferry worker’s shift includes two round trips and loading time.

On the Duke Point run this meant at least eight and a half hours, “thus ensuring the crew at least one hour at double time daily and often more,” Harvey writes. “Later it became a scheduled overtime route.”

Something to keep in mind as Adrian Dix and his crew of union bosses prepare to take the helm.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com

tfletcher@blackpress.ca