Ferry follies prevent much-needed dialogue

The ferry system needs an overhaul – I don’t think anyone would argue with that.

B.C. Ferries didn’t even make it out of port last week.

The company quietly released a strategy document in September, outlining some major potential changes to the ferry service, particularly for the mid-Island. The document suggested reconfiguring the major routes that serve Vancouver Island due to the cost of upgrades and congestion at the Horseshoe Bay terminal.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone at first supported the idea, in an all-cards-on-the-table kind of way, before a 180-degree turn that saw him commit to keeping the Horseshoe Bay-Nanaimo run. It’s the typical storyline with B.C. Ferries – the provincial government is more concerned with its political approval than providing a sustainable ferry service to coastal British Columbians.

The ferry system needs an overhaul – I don’t think anyone would argue with that. Fares have increased and service has been cut back on the major routes alone. The company attempted to increase revenue through on-board services, like food, gifts and even pre-packaged vacations. It hasn’t worked, insofar as we haven’t seen a rate drop to indicate any of these services are raking in the dough. And we certainly haven’t seen the taxpayer subsidy to the ferry corporation drop, either.

This document released in September had the potential to blow the conversation about the ferry system wide open. It was the kind of conversation we needed, too.

The same ‘solutions’ to the ferry problem have been bandied about for longer than I’ve lived on the coast. Reduce fares and see an increase in traffic. But that means the taxpayer subsidy will increase and we don’t want to pay more taxes. Or maybe increase fares and people on the coast will just have to pay for the privilege of living on an island. But then traffic decreases below a sustainable threshold and the company looks to service cuts or asking for an increase to the subsidy.

These arguments are stale. We need new ideas, which is why it was so disappointing to see the government backtrack on its original stance.

The Horseshoe Bay-Departure Bay route is my favourite – Highway 1 takes me right through the Lower Mainland and out to the Interior of the province. It’s (relatively) quick and serviced by public transit on both sides of the water. Consolidating the terminals at Duke Point might make financial sense, but a significant investment in infrastructure and transit would be required to even get the plan off the drawing board.

But at least we could’ve had that discussion. Instead, the company releases a major strategic document with little to no plan to communicate the issues raised to the travelling public. The Vancouver Sun broke the story, leaving the company and the government to play catch up on their own message. To quell the outrage, the provincial government acted in usual form and shut down discussion before it could even begin.

Had the company and the government presented the report up front, back in September when it was originally released, it could have opened up a wide-ranging consultation with ferry users and presented radical ideas never before considered. But the reaction essentially slammed the door on any radical thinking when it comes to B.C. Ferries.

Playing politics has done a greater disservice to coastal British Columbians than summer sailing waits ever could.

editor@nanaimobulletin.com