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General News · 14th July 2008
John Sprungman
Protests against rising ferry fares were planned for today (July 4) by residents of a number of islands as BC Ferries submitted a request to the Ferry Commissioner this week for substantial fuel surcharges to be added to fares, possibly as early as next month.

BCF President and CEO David Hahn said the surcharges could be 8-9% on the major routes and 15-20% on the minors. CFO Rob Clarke says the percentage referred to an “average fare price” which is higher than what Experience Card users are paying.

Clarke said BCF hoped to have a ruling from Commissioner Martin Crilly in time to implement the surcharge during the summer to pick up revenue from tourist traffic. BCF would have been in a position to add a surcharge in November under a formula Crilly built into his ruling on fare price caps for 2008-2012.

The chairs of the coast's 12 Ferry Advisory Committees last week submitted our own request to the Provincial Government for a “minor route strategy” to deal with what we see as an urgent need to address the viability of our ferry services and communities.

In a paper detailing the history of fare increases and fuel surcharges since the government “privatized” BC Ferries in 2003, the FAC Chairs also looked ahead at expected higher fuel prices and increased financing costs for minor route vessel replacement and terminal upgrades.
The carefully researched paper, sent to Minister of Transportation Kevin Falcon, notes that minor route traffic has been steadily declining as fares have increased and suggests that “added costs and resulting changes in travel patterns may render the routes serving ferry dependent communities unsustainable and could threaten the viability of the whole ferry system, while causing substantial, and irreversible, economic and social trauma to coastal communities.”

Citing the government's northern route strategy, which includes provincial funding for infrastructure and for increased fuel costs, the FAC Chairs conclude that a similar “strategic approach is urgently required both to immediately mitigate the impact of excessive fare shock and to develop a transportation service that will be resilient to anticipated changing conditions.

“The absence of such an approach will likely lead to a collapse of BCFerries' business plan for the routes in question and to irreversible damage to the vulnerable coastal communities they serve,” the FAC Chairs believe.

Efforts to Reduce Fuel Use

While the price of fuel is driving change in every energy-dependent aspect of our lives, environmental change from burning all the fuels humans use is increasingly a concern we can't ignore. BCF is subject to paying the BC government's carbon tax on its fuel, but because it is a “private” company, it is not subject to the province's carbon reduction guidelines for government agencies and Crown corporations. But BCF is aware that could change.

BCF uses its Power Point presentations at FAC meetings to list all the things it is doing to try to reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions. In its vessel replacement program, it is installing engines that are more efficient and control systems that it says optimize fuel economy. Better hull designs and smoother hull finishes help reduce the number of litres burned per nautical mile.

Existing vessels are being equipped with fuel monitoring devices and cutting back on rpms can save significant amounts of diesel on vessels which have their engines running 12 to 16 hours a day. BCF also encourages drivers not to sit idling in parking lots or on board while waiting to unload, but they say they have to leave the ships' engines idling in port.

When oil was cheap and climate change caused by carbon emissions was unheard of, BC Ferries acquired (or inherited) a fleet of vessels which depend on their diesel-powered engines to run the ships' systems whether the boat is in motion or docked. Propulsion is in fact required to keep most of their vessels in the slips while they are being loaded and unloaded.

And, the engineers say, shutting down and restarting these big diesels many times a day would greatly shorten the lives of the engines and increase the risk of breakdowns at sea. Upgrades to terminals and ships would be needed to use shore power if the engines were shut down, and the extra time required to secure the vessels to the docks might necessitate reducing the number of sailings in a day.

That may be the coming reality anyway if oil hits $200 a barrel, as a recent CIBC World Markets report suggests will happen by 2010. The cost of gas and of ferry fares could combine to reduce ferry traffic to a point where running the ships at less than half their capacity cannot be justified. Right now, with summer upon us, that concept is hard to fathom as we arrive at the terminals to discover yet another full load of vehicles ahead of us.

Do You Use Lane 2?
We now have a waiting room and tiled washrooms in the new terminal building at Quathiaski Cove, and all the lanes in the lot are in use again, but there is still no clear signage at the top of the hillside holding lanes telling drivers to go into Lane 2 if Lane 1 is full--and if Lane 2 is also full, to follow its last car down the hill.

The management of this traffic is no problem with a second lot attendant (which BCF provided during the terminal construction) but word was that staffing would be cut back to Monday and Thursday mornings to handle the assured loading of Cortes vehicles arriving for the 9 a.m. sailing.

It is baffling that, more than a year later, BCF has been unable to come up with a workable means of signs or lights to control traffic on the hill without a second attendant.

Left to their own devices, some drivers are going into Lane 2 but others wait on the side the roadway across the intersection and then follow the Lane One traffic into the parking lot, passing people who arrived ahead of them.

In most cases, everyone will get on the next boat anyway, but this queue-jumping discourages the use of Lane 2 and recreates the problem of ferry traffic backed up on the public road which adding a lane on the hill was intended to resolve.

Knowing How the Wind Blows
Ferry captains and many other mariners get their weather information for the Strait of Georgia, north of Nanaimo, from Environment Canada over VHF radio (Channel Weather One) or online (www.weatheroffice.gc.ca/marine/forecast_e.html?mapID=02&siteID=14301). Some of this information is also available by calling 250-286-3575.

One of the sources of current wind and sea conditions is the weather bouy at Sentry Shoal, a reef directly south of Mitlenatch Island. Last week the Weather Office launched its redesigned marine pages. You now get the info, updated hourly, by clicking on “weather conditions” at the above link and then choosing Sentry Shoal from “select a bouy or land station.” Conditions at Campbell River Airport are also accessible here.

Another way to see the bouy info is at www.ndbc.noaa.gov/station_page.php?station=46131, a more readable, detailed page on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's web site.

It can be useful to check these sites in planning your ferry travel during unsettled weather.