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


Just Posted

World Down Syndrome Day: The up side of Down

A Kelowna family’s journey with Down Syndrome: ‘There is tremendous beauty in these kids’

Kelowna cops crack down on drivers using cell phones

Drivers caught talking or texting behind the wheel now face a fine totalling $543

Okanagan Falls winery showing international photo project

Liquidity Wines will be sole Canadian show of National Geographic’s Photo Ark

West Kelowna mayor meets finance minister to protest speculation tax

Doug Findlater presents Carole James with booklet of info outlining tax’s impact on his city

Kelowna celebrates World Down Syndrome Day

More than 50 people gathered in Kelowna to bring awareness to diversity and difference

Crook’s Corner

Arts and entertainment highlights this week across the Okanagan

B.C. Scientists witness first-ever documented killer whale infanticide

“It’s horrifying and fascinating at the same time.”

Lawyer for one suspect in beating of man with autism says he’s not guilty

Ronjot Singh Dhami will turn himself in, lawyer said

Liberals awarded $100,000 contract to man at centre of Facebook data controversy

Christopher Wylie says his voter-profiling company collected private information from 50 million Facebook users

Facebook’s Zuckerberg admits mistakes in privacy scandal

Zuckerberg admits to privacy scandal involving a Trump-connected data-mining firm, but no apology

Rockets’ Foote a finalist for top WHL D-man

Cal Foote named the Western Conference top defenseman; Foote and Dube named all-stars

UPDATE: Former B.C. city councillor sentenced nine months for sexual assault

Dave Murray, convicted this past fall, hired a private investigator to intrude on the victim’s life.

How to keep local news visible in your Facebook feed

Facebook has changed the news feed to emphasize personal connections. You might see less news.

Shots fired in Kamloops

Kamloops RCMP are investigating a report of shots fired and a possible explosion at a trailer court

Most Read