Carrying a boat load of commuters

CFB Esquimalt axes popular Blue Boat commuter service

Region's mayors react with concern, tout need for short-term transportation solution

CFB Esquimalt is cancelling its Blue Boat commuter shuttle service.

When the service ends on April 30, upwards of 400 military and civilian personnel will be forced to find other means to travel between CFB Esquimalt and the West Shore every day, Monday to Friday.

Navy Capt. Craig Baines, CFB Esquimalt commander, made the decision because there isn’t enough staff to operate the ferry service as well as the other vessels that make up the auxiliary fleet within the base’s Port Operations and Emergency Services Branch, said CFB Esquimalt spokesperson navy Lt. Michael McWhinnie.

Within the past year, there has been a 10-per-cent decline in auxiliary fleet staffing levels due to attrition by retirement, for example.

“It reached a tipping point,” McWhinnie told The News Friday, adding it hasn’t been possible to fill those vacancies, nor are there plans to fill them in the immediate future.

A total of six civilians operate the two boats, but the staff members are needed to operate other vessels in the auxiliary fleet, such as the base’s tugs and fire boats, which have priority.

“They couldn’t do that and keep this shuttle service,” McWhinnie said, adding that ” … it becomes an obvious decision, an inescapable decision, when you prioritize the things that you have to do versus the things that you like to do.”

The Blue Boats make 13 runs each day of the work week, from 6 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., attracting a total daily ridership of about 800 passengers. Each boat can shuttle up to 67 passengers, plus three crew members, at a time.

Upwards of 9,000 passengers used the service in one month last year.

Though the commuter service is popular, the primary job of the Blue Boats, which have been in service at the base since they were built in 1955, has been to move personnel and supplies to various Department of National Defence job sites around Esquimalt Harbour.

“People increasingly took advantage of that existing service for commuting purposes in recent years,” McWhinnie said.

The age of the boats wasn’t a driving factor in the decision to terminate the ferry service, but it is recognized that the wood-hulled boats’ days are numbered.

“Ships don’t last forever,” McWhinnie said.

One base employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, does not use the service, but said the cancellation will “affect us all.”

“Between the Johnson Street Bridge (replacement), the Craigflower bridge (replacement), the Victoria Shipyards (and) the navy (personnel) now all getting out at 4 p.m., it will be a nightmare, traffic- and parking-wise, not to mention (for) the environment.”

Reaction to the news was swift.

Langford Mayor Stew Young mourned the loss of the service, which he said benefitted the region and not just those who used the boats.

“Add 400 people … in the morning on that highway that’s already full and it’s going to affect everybody else who is already in that queue,” he said. “It’s another reason why we need that E&N (railway, which still needs federal funding), because it goes right by the front of the door (at CFB Esquimalt).”

An estimated 46 per cent of CFB Esquimalt personnel are affected by commuter crawl, according to data supplied by the base. More than 480 housing units are located at Belmont Park in Colwood, making it the largest military housing community on the south Island.

The cancellation of the Blue Boat shuttle has prompted Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins to begin asking municipal, defence and Victoria Shipyards stakeholders to form a working group to discuss transportation challenges, identify solutions such as the E&N rail service, and ask higher levels of government for support.

“We are absolutely clogged,” she said. “You can’t make a decision in Ottawa and not have an understanding of all the layers of the problem here. I don’t know if we’ve been clear on our message.”

More cars on the road will have an enormous economic impact, Young added.

“It’s just going to damage the downtown core as a region because the more and more people you put on the road, the less people want to sit in traffic to go to Victoria, and Victoria businesses and everybody else are going to have a tough time,” he said.

“If I was a business person in the downtown core and you lose the Blue Boat and the Blue Bridge, give me a break, there’s two blue strikes against you.”

emccracken@vicnews.com