Fantasies won’t keep ferries afloat

Tom Fletcher's column looks at B.C. Ferries' future.

VICTORIA – It was a sunny Thanksgiving weekend when I took my first all-transit trip from Victoria to Vancouver for a B.C. Lions football game.

Despite all the doomsaying about people shunning ferries because of some media-determined “tipping point” in fares, you wouldn’t have guessed it that weekend. Articulated buses were jammed coming and going from the Tsawwassen terminal to the Canada Line.

Returning to Vancouver Island on Sunday, I was struck by the crowds, and the low cost: SkyTrain, express bus, walk-on passenger fare and express bus to Victoria totalled about $20. This explains the surge in walk-on traffic.

BC Ferries issued bulletins advising first that Tsawwassen’s parking lot and then Swartz Bay’s were full. The Tsawwassen First Nation’s shuttle parking next door was overflowing, with cars tucked into every level space. And even with hourly sailings, the major route had plenty of vehicle traffic, with all available vessels running.

Now the long, late summer is gone, and the political theatre resumes. Transportation Minister Mary Polak picked up where the retiring Blair Lekstrom left off, reminding people that BC Ferries is going to deal with rising costs primarily by ceasing the practice of running vessels a third full or less.

This comes as “consultation” begins with smaller ferry communities on where and when these sailings will be cut. And it follows the first major price-cap decision by the newly empowered B.C. Ferry Commissioner, Gord Macatee. He now can determine service levels as well as fares, which are permitted to rise about four per cent in each of the next three years.

The NDP’s ferry critic, North Coast MLA Garry Coons, has also decided to transition to his government pensions next year. But before he sails away, he has doubled his repertoire of outraged sound bites to two.

Along with every coffee-shop know-it-all on the coast, Coons perpetually reminds us that ferries are “part of our highway system.” He remains convinced that this financially illiterate cliché somehow deals with the fact that even a subsidy approaching $200 million this year can’t keep all those boats afloat forever.

A family of four on a long driving trip faces similar price increases, when you factor in tolls, insurance, food and other costs beyond the fuel tank. But for some reason the “government” is supposed to provide special relief to those who choose the most inaccessible places to live.

Coons’ latest tack is that BC Ferries has lost its way, trying to be a fancy cruise ship service instead of giving people basic transportation at an affordable price.

That would be terrible if it were true. But those amenities on newer vessels are there because they make money, utilizing staff who have to be on board anyway. As everyone but the NDP seems to grasp, the big costs are fuel, maintenance, and minimum crew levels to meet federal regulations, regardless of passenger revenue.

I was reminded on the last busy weekend of the year that the new Coastal-class ferries kept vehicle capacity the same while increasing passenger space. This choice anticipated today’s travel reality nearly a decade ago. Good thing somebody was able to understand ferries as a business, as opposed to a welfare program for the reclusive and the rich.

BC Ferries has already cut sailings on the Tsawwassen-Duke point route. As described in an earlier column, this needlessly long run is the biggest boondoggle in BC Ferries history, a Dave Barrett-era payoff to the union that continues today.

Changes will now come to other routes that minimize shifts and overtime, rather than inflating them.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter for Black Press. tfletcher@blackpress.ca

 

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