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, unlike on its Gulf Island routes.

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

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