Special Report on B.C. Ferries – Part 4: Trying to reimagine B.C. Ferries

With public input, the province hopes to get the cash-strapped corporation back on course

Drivers motor up the ramp to board B.C. Ferries’ Spirit of British Columbia for a 9 a.m. sailing at Swartz Bay terminal. The company makes money with its sailings to Tsawwassen

Drivers motor up the ramp to board B.C. Ferries’ Spirit of British Columbia for a 9 a.m. sailing at Swartz Bay terminal. The company makes money with its sailings to Tsawwassen

Last of four parts

The province is embarking on a formal consultation with taxpayers as it attempts to trim $26 million from B.C. Ferries’ costs. It also wants to develop a long-term vision before $2.5 billion is spent on new vessels.

The consult is a complex undertaking that residents in ferry-dependent communities are approaching cautiously, hoping their voices are heard before the ferry corporation charts a new path.

B.C. Transportation Minister Mary Polak said the province is open to all new ideas that are gathered through its public consultation, although they aren’t binding.

“I’ve been impressed, when I’ve spoken with leaders from the coastal communities, how many of them have already been giving a lot of thought to potential solutions, ideas like the use of water taxis or the use of passenger-only ferries,” Polak said.

Other options include the use of smaller vessels on underutilized routes, she said, but any decisions are likely to be announced next year, after the consultation concludes Dec. 21.

B.C. Ferry Commissioner Gord Macatee suggested commercial traffic might be separated onto dedicated barges, and the successful drop-trailer shipping service could be expanded from its current level of 600 transports per week, freeing up passenger ferries to better accommodate resident needs.

Expanding public transportation on the Gulf Islands would help make passenger-only ferries feasible, said Tony Law, ferry advisory committee chair for Denman and Hornby islands.

“When B.C. Ferries buys a ferry, it’s going to last for 40 or 50 years and a lot can change during that time,” he said.

“And each situation is very, very different. Each route is quite unique in terms of its configuration and the people who use it. So, it’s pretty hard to come up with solutions that fit with every case.”

A bridge from Nanaimo to Gabriola Island is another outside-the-box proposition that could save money over time, said Law, who has been involved in ferry advocacy since 1996.

“We hope that (the consultation) is conducted in a way … that something meaningful comes out of this,” he said.

• • •

B.C. Ferries funds itself through three sources: fares, government subsidies and ancillary revenue from such ventures as on-board food services, parking, terminal markets and consulting for other ferry providers.

“Every extra dollar of ancillary revenue takes pressure off the fares,” Macatee said, correcting a common misconception that the creation of “luxury cruisers” is driving up costs.

“They’ve gotten up to $100 million in (annual ancillary) revenue, which is really impressive.”

While Macatee can’t make specific recommendations to B.C. Ferries for new revenue streams, due to his mandate, he can push the corporation to demonstrate that it has looked at alternatives.

“The job of a regulator is to hold their feet to the fire and really force them to justify that they’re being efficient,” he said. “But at the end of the day, they have other regulators they’ve got to deal with: provincial laws, federal laws.”

Possible money-generating services include onboard casinos, alcohol sales on major routes and selling branding rights on vessels.

Only the longer northern routes of Port Hardy-Prince Rupert and Prince Rupert-Haida Gwaii currently serve alcohol on board, although those routes still experienced shortfalls of $28.6 million and $24.2 million, respectively, last year.

“There are a lot of issues with serving alcohol on a car ferry service, but let’s face it, not everybody’s the driver,” Macatee said. “We certainly want (B.C. Ferries) to look at those things. But to walk in and tell them they should be getting into the casino business, that’s their job, and I understand the line very clearly.”

Polak all but ruled out the possibility of adding such services in the short-term. “They’re not things that we have proposed or put on the table,” she said, adding any new ideas should have public support.

NDP critic for B.C. Ferries, Gary Coons, said he personally doesn’t want such alternate revenue streams as casinos, liquor sales or branding to be a part of a long-term plan.

“We’ve had this long-term social and economic contract with ferry-dependent communities … providing affordable transportation,” he said. “We have to get away from (the idea of) B.C. Ferries as a tourism product and cruise ship line (and think about) meeting the needs of people who rely on ferry service and the economics that go with that.”

Polak said changes will take place gradually over the remaining three years of the service contract, only after the public consultation is complete.

“There are taxpayers who don’t live in communities that are depending on ferries. They also have an interest in what happens to changes in services to ferry communities,” she said.

Macatee cautioned the choices made in the coming months will affect the very future of B.C. Ferries and marine transportation in the province.

“If there is a long-term vision, somebody needs to say it soon, before we build $2.5 billion (worth of) car ferries, which is what’s going to happen in the next eight years,” he said.

• • •

A 12-per-cent jump in fares over the next three years leaves people like Harold Swierenga scratching his head at the prospect of a re-imagined ferry corporation.

“Vancouver Island is a huge part of the provincial economy, and yet the fares keep rising,” said Swierenga, chair of the Salt Spring Island ferry advisory committee. “And the attitude that this is all supposed to be a part of building the coastal economy seems to be lost.

“The government seems to view the ferries as just another utility that they should keep as far away from government books as possible. But it’s a monopoly, it’s locked in. If the fares go up, we have no choice. We still pay the fares.”

Coons maintains that the entire structure of B.C. Ferries has to be reconsidered. He also won’t rule out the possibility of returning it to a Crown corporation under greater government control.

“We’ve got to look at B.C. Ferries differently … and acknowledge that it’s a difficult part of our highway network,” he said.

For now, residents of coastal British Columbia are watching from the shorelines, waiting out the storm.

Some fuel for thought

Switching the entire existing fleet to cheaper and cleaner fuel such as liquified natural gas (LNG) is possible, but expensive, according to a 2011 feasibility study commissioned by B.C. Ferries.

The first ships slated for mid-life upgrades are the Queen of Capilano, which operates on the Horseshoe Bay-Bowen Island run, and the Spirit of British Columbia (above) and Spirit of Vancouver Island, which sail between the mainland and Vancouver Island. The deadline for conversion decisions on the three vessels is 2015.

A switch to LNG would save $1.8 million in fuel costs each year on the Capilano and an average of $6.5 million each on the Spirit-class vessels.

In total, B.C. Ferries could reduce fuel costs by an estimated $28.8 million annually by converting mid-life ships and purchasing all new vessels with LNG-powered engines, according to the study.

dpalmer@vicnews.com

Previous stories in the series:

Special Report on B.C. Ferries – Part 3: A lifeline to the mainland

Special Report on B.C. Ferries – Part 2: Gulf Islanders pay a price

Special Report on B.C. Ferries – Part 1: A sea of change

B.C. Ferries charts a new course

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The District of Sooke has launched a new online community engagement platform, letstalksooke.ca, where residents can share feedback and stay up to date on projects and initiatives that are happening in their community. (Kevin Laird - Sooke News Mirror)
Sooke launches online engagement portal

The District of Sooke has launched a new online community engagement platform… Continue reading

Island Health declared a COVID-19 outbreak in two houses at the Mount St. Mary long-term care home on Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of Google Earth)
Island Health declares outbreak at Victoria long-term care home

Resident, staff member test positive for COVID-19 at Mount St. Mary facility

A peacock struts by a pair of lamb siblings at the Beacon Hill Children’s Farm, which remains closed to the public. (Don Descoteau/News Staff)
VIDEO: Victoria petting zoo optimistic about future after 13 months closed

Public helps non-profit Beacon Hill Children’s Farm with nearly $100,000 influx

Vancouver Island Connector and Tofino Bus is putting a 41-passenger electric bus through its paces in a three-month trial run between Nanaimo and Victoria. (Photo submitted)
Electric bus on trial run serving Victoria-to-Nanaimo route

Vancouver Island Connector and Tofino Bus trying out 41-seat electric coach for three months

Sewer construction will mean limited access to West Shore Parkway from Sooke Road for the next week. (Courtesy of the City of Langford)
West Shore Parkway access limited from Sooke Road

Crews working on sewer construction for the next week

A large crowd protested against COVID-19 measures at Sunset Beach in Vancouver on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. (Snapchat)
VIDEO: Large, police-patrolled crowds gather at Vancouver beach for COVID protests

Vancouver police said they patrolled the area and monitored all gatherings

A teacher-librarian in Nanaimo was fired in 2019 for checking out an age-inappropriate graphic novel to a student. The discipline agreement was published Wednesday, April 21. (News Bulletin file photo)
Nanaimo teacher-librarian fired for checking out too-graphic graphic novel to student

Teacher had been previously disciplined and suspended on two occasions

Aria Pendak Jefferson cuddles ChiChi, the family cat that ran away two years ago in Ucluelet. The feline was missing until Courtney Johnson and Barry Edge discovered her in the parking lot of the Canadian Princess earlier this month. Aria and her parents were reunited with ChiChi in a parking lot in Port Alberni. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
An Island girl’s wish is answered as her cat came back

Courtenay family reunited with cat that went missing in Ucluelet in 2019

FILE – The Instagram app is shown on an iPhone in Toronto on Monday, March 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy
Judge acquits B.C. teen boy ‘set up’ on sex assault charge based on Instagram messages

The girl and her friends did not have ‘good intentions’ towards the accused, judge says

Kai Palkeinen recently helped a car stuck on the riverbed near the Big Eddy Bridge. While the car could not be saved, some of the driver’s belongings were. It’s common for vehicles to get stuck in the area due to significantly changing river levels from Revelstoke Dam. (Photo by Kai Palkeinen)
“I just sank a car’: Revelstoke resident tries to save vehicle from the Columbia River

Although it’s not permitted, the riverbed near the city is popular for off roading

Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, walks down the street with an acquaintance after leaving B.C. Supreme Court during a lunch break at her extradition hearing, in Vancouver, B.C., Thursday, April 1, 2021. A judge is scheduled to release her decision today on a request to delay the final leg of hearings in Meng Wanzhou’s extradition case. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rich Lam
B.C. judge grants Meng Wanzhou’s request to delay extradition hearings

Lawyers for Canada’s attorney general had argued there is no justification to delay proceedings in the case

B.C. Premier John Horgan announces travel restrictions between the province’s regional health authorities at the legislature, April 19, 2021. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. sees 862 more COVID-19 cases Wednesday, seven deaths

Recreational travel restrictions set to begin Friday

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson is photographed following her budget speech in the legislative assembly at the provincial legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. budget lacks innovative drive, vision during uncertain times, say experts

Finance Minister Selina Robinson’s budget sets out to spend $8.7 billion over three years on infrastructure

Using panels kept cold by water circulating within them, B.C. researchers compared thermal comfort in 60 of the world’s most populous cities, including Toronto. (Lea Ruefenacht)
B.C. researchers use air conditioning to combat spread of COVID particles

Dr. Adam Rysanek and his team have proven a new worthwhile system – a mixture of cooling panels and natural ventilation

Most Read