Port Hardy Mayor Bev Parnham addresses the panel at the ferry consultation meeting.

Ferry panel gets an earful in Hardy

Local residents and civic leaders unloaded on officials from B.C. Ferries and the MoT during a small-group meeting held Friday.

PORT HARDY—Citing everything from a flawed process to erroneous information in its printed booklets, local residents and civic leaders unloaded on officials from B.C. Ferries and the Ministry of Transportation during a small-group meeting held Friday as part of the B.C. Coastal Ferries consultation and engagement process.

The consultation tour, which will run through Dec. 21 and include stops in 30 coastal B.C. communities, is ostensibly to gather feedback from local residents and ferry users on the best way to achieve a $26 million savings identified by BC Ferries as required by 2016.

North Island ferry proponents, however, perceived a company that has already made up its mind that the way to those savings will be through fare increases and service cuts.

“The data BC Ferries has reported on route 10 is confusing and the shortfall you’re reporting is highly inaccurate and provocative,” said Bev Parnham, mayor of Port Hardy. “And I also want it on record that the questions we’ve been presented are contrived, and they take away from the overarching, bigger picture concerns of BC Ferries operations that have to be resolved before any specific action is taken.”

Parnham went on to question why Inland ferries are funded as part of the B.C. highway system while the coastal ferries are not, and closed her comments by calling for the return of BC Ferries to a crown corporation, rather than an “arms-length entity.”

BC Ferries has cited increasing fuel and labour costs and decreasing ridership as having created a substantial funding shortfall across the system. It has already announced fare increases totaling more than 10 per cent over the coming three years, and is seeking additional savings.

The consultation panel, including BC Ferries directors David Hendry and Peter Simpson and Kirk Handrahan, executive director of the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure’s marine section, came armed with two booklets describing the crisis facing the coastal ferry system and containing charts with detailed ridership figures on all its coastal routes.

The nearly 50 civic leaders, business owners, tourism operators and other residents in attendance were underwhelmed.

Heidi Soltau, Area A director for the Regional District of Mount Waddington and a member of the Tri-Island Ferry Commission, said the figures for Route 25 serving Port McNeill, Sointula and Alert Bay were “misrepresentative.”

All three routes serving North Vancouver Island — Route 25 and the two mid-coast routes out of Port Hardy serving Prince Rupert and Bella Bella — fell into the “underutililized” category in the panel’s charts.

“When I first got elected 13 years ago, I was told the fastest way to confuse an audience was to put a graph in front of them,” said Alfred Dick, a councillor with the ‘Namgis First Nation band. “And it’s true. I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about in these pages here.

“You’re making us, the users, the sole people to bear the responsibility of your $26 million mismanagement.”

As a donnybrook, however, this meeting was a very one-sided affair. The review panel accepted the verbal blows placidly and fired back bland assurances that the grievances would be noted.

“I want to assure the people in the room that a big and important component of the summary report will be a meeting-by-meeting analysis of the key things we heard in each community,” said Anna Wright, the event moderator who repeatedly reminded participants to fill in a response form either in the provided booklet or online. “That will form a really key part of the report.”

But several respondents said the very process was flawed from the outset, noting the process had pre-identified six specific considerations — including budget shortfalls, ferry utilization and ferry service levels — and has formulated a response questionnaire limited to those areas.

“The proper way to do a consultation process is to provide accurate timely information on the subject, follow that up with consultation with the community, then follow up that consultation up with analysis and review,” Alert Bay Mayor Michael Berry said. “At that point comes the brochure, if you will. I really do find the process is ill thought-out. To that end, I have grave concerns about the feedback that will come out of the feedback forum.”

The small-group meeting in Port Hardy drew participants from ferry-served communities on Cormorant and Malcolm Islands, Port McNeill, Port Hardy and Bella Bella/Shearwater. The consultation panel’s coastal tour also included “open house” stops in Alert Bay and Sointula, but left out Port McNeill, which drew a sharp rebuke from Port McNeill councillor Shirley Ackland.

“You need to see (coastal ferries) as part of the infrastructure of the province,” Ackland said. “We need it funded by everybody in the province. I don’t ask you to roll up the highway to Alaska because I’m not on it at 3 o’clock in the morning.”

The $700,000 consultation and review process will move into its next phase after the new year, when the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure and BC Ferries begins to draft a long-term plan for the coastal ferry system. It is unknown whether the current Liberal government will have a completed draft prepared to present as part of its platform in the provincial election scheduled for May, 2013.

For more information on the consultation process, and to fill out a feedback response form, visit coastalferriesengagement.ca.