Taxpayers have chance to weigh in on proposed foot ferry

NANAIMO – A new passenger-only ferry service is being proposed for Nanaimo by Island Ferry Services Ltd.

City officials are calling for taxpayers to weigh in on the need for a proposed foot ferry between Nanaimo and downtown Vancouver after the project’s proponent made plans public Monday.

David Marshall, one of the passenger ferry proponents and director of operations for Island Ferries, revealed plans for $63-million passenger-only service during an open committee of the whole meeting.

It was the first time the group has made details public.

According to the Victoria-based businessman, the pitch is to build a temporary terminal on the south industrial waterfront, where two catamaran ferries would shuttle passengers between Nanaimo and Vancouver in 68 minutes.

The ferries, which hold more than 370 passengers, will run a minimum of three round trips a day and fares would hover at a base-rate of $30.

Marshall is confident the venture will be successful in the Harbour City, despite the failings of two predecessors. The consortium behind the project has learned from the mistakes and triumphs of Harbour

Lynx, including the need for new ferries and large capital investment, he said.

The group hopes to get the service running next spring, but says it is still waiting on final investment and support from the City of Nanaimo to make the business work.

It’s seeking a 20-year long-term lease at the Wellcox property, with an option to move to the Seaspan site if the company leaves the water lot to consolidate its operations in Duke Point.

It’s also seeking to ink a partnership deal with the City of Nanaimo that would allow the new ferry service a chance to incubate over the next five years.

The group will still pay property taxes, but is asking the municipality to take a smaller piece of promised revenue.

The city would earn about $400,000 in total from passenger and parking over the next five years – a lost revenue of $2.5 million, Marshall said.

After five years the City of Nanaimo would receive $700,000 annually.  As part of the new project, the city is also required to service the site to a tune of $125,000.

This will be the first time the city considers a partnership with a passenger ferry service and while city officials are excited about the economic opportunities ahead, they say there are also questions and details to be ironed out.

City staff members have yet to consider the effect increased traffic could have on the south end or whether the consortium can have the parking it wants. There are also ongoing discussions about access, with only one public route available into the south industrial waterfront.

Ian Howat, the city’s acting general manager of corporate services, said the project is complex and a passionate issue for people so city staff members plan to proceed cautiously. The process of determining an agreement could take between two and six months, beginning with city staff members seeking feedback from taxpayers and politicians.

“Now we want to hear from people,” Howat said. “We need to hear whether they want to see a fast ferry here, [if] there are aspects of this proposal that are distasteful [or if] these aspects are reasonable and tolerable.

“We just need to hear … how they feel about it.”

The passenger ferry service has been in the works for the last four years and could be ready within six months of the financial close to begin running between Nanaimo and downtown Vancouver.

Marshall, the only investor and member of the consortium to go public, said the ferries are anticipated to help spur economic development and will generate 105 marine jobs to start, including 80 in Nanaimo and 25 in Victoria and Vancouver. Marshall does not anticipate Island Ferries will need to sell taxpayers on the idea of partnership agreement or foot ferry service because the company is going to be pumping revenue into the city rather than asking for tax breaks.

But Coun. Bill McKay said it’s important the public knows what the city is getting into and have a chance to weigh in on the project.

“I think the only stumbling block we are going to have here is people’s understanding of what the city’s participation in the program is going to be,” McKay said. “We want to make sure we have their blessing before we go too far along this road.”

Residents with early input on the proposal are being asked to talk write, e-mail or speak with council members about their opinions.