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General News · 26th September 2008
John Sprungman
One of the myths being perpetrated by the Liberal government is that they are not really controlling BC Ferries.

The latest evidence of this was clearly presented at BC Ferries' annual general meeting Aug. 26-27 in Delta when everything the Ferry Advisory Committee Chairs (FACC) heard from BCF management and the Ferry Commissioners was in lock step with Minister of Transportation Kevin Falcon's response to the August 1 fuel surcharges.

“We're going to have to look at, talk to the communities about service levels, try and figure out ways we can run the system maybe a little more intelligently,” Falcon told CKNW radio at the end of July. “We're going to have to have discussions about that to try and reduce costs, possibly reducing the number of trips to certain of the islands.”

At another point in the interview, he said, “I think the fact of the matter is we are going to have to sit down with the ferry advisory boards and the communities and figure out, we're going to have to look at levels of service.”

So the FACC immediately offered to meet with him and didn't even get the courtesy of a response. But it turns out that his comments were far from off-the-cuff.

At the AGM, there was a fancy pamphlet that presents BCF's 2008-2009 Business Plan. In a section called “Strategies and Tactics (to) Facilitate a Culture of Continuous Improvement,” BCF says, “We will work collaboratively with Ferry Advisory Committees to facilitate adjustments to local service plans.”

Under “Strategies and Tactics to achieve key financial targets, ensuring that sufficient capital and retained earnings are available to revitalize our fleet, facilities and infrastructure,” BCF says, “We will maintain a strong relationship with the BC Ferries Commissioner and the BC Provincial Ministry of Transportation.”

Under this heading, BCF says it will “develop and implement revised route service schedules where appropriate” and “assess potential Alternative Service Providers for designated ferry routes.”

BCF is currently advertising for “expressions of interest” from private companies to take over the operation of the Quadra, Cortes and Tri-Island (Port Mcneill, Sointula, Alert Bay) ferries. They are required to do this by the government's Coastal Ferry Act, though none of the time-consuming work BCF has done in the last five years to meet this requirement has produced a cost-effective alternative service provider on any route.

In the FACC's meetings with management at the AGM, we heard that BCF plans to provide FACs with an analysis of the levels of use of every sailing throughout the year and wants to look at how schedules can be changed or reduced some days of the week or some parts of the year to save on labour and fuel costs.

At an FACC meeting with Ministry of Transportation officials in May, they suggested we participate in an “innovation” workshop with the Ferry Commissioners, which we were willing to do. The Commissioners came to our meeting at the AGM with an outline for a workshop that would include “service redesign.”

However, none of this will happen right away. In fact, BCF's plan is to wait until after the election in May so ferry service doesn't become a political issue. If the cost and level of ferry service isn't an election issue for every ferry-dependent voter, then the FAC Chairs don't know our own communities.

The FACC was adamant in our meetings that reducing service levels could not be considered without a commitment from the government, BC Ferries and the Ferry Commissioner that any savings would go to reducing fares on the affected routes.

Our mission as community representatives is get government to recognize that BC Ferries is essential transportation infrastructure that deserves the same level of support from the provincial treasury that highways and other transportation systems in BC receive.

Our message is that this government's user pay policy has already pushed ferry fares to levels that are harming our communities. That message is getting through in some places.

In an editorial published Sept. 1, the Vancouver Province wrote:
“When Gibsons' Mayor Barry Janyk asked B.C. Ferries' President David Hahn whether or not the company would join in a study on the effect of rising fares on ferry-dependent communities, he got a one-word answer: “No!” As terse and blunt as this response was to those attending B.C. Ferries annual meeting in Delta last week, it spoke volumes about what is wrong with the province's coastal ferry system.

“Hahn is technically correct,” the newspaper wrote, “in saying that any study into what ferry-dependent communities believe is the increasingly negative economic impact of higher ferry fares is 'a policy thing'--and therefore falls under the B.C. government's jurisdiction.

“However, Victoria has shown no interest whatsoever in a report from the B.C. Ferries Advisory Committee, which warned that rising fares are not only hurting coastal communities, but are threatening the viability of the ferry system. The committee, which represents ferry-dependent communities serviced by BC Ferries, wrote the report specifically for Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon.

“'Falcon cool toward report on impact of ferry fares' was the way one editorial-page headline described the minister's response.

“Since the Campbell government dumped its responsibility for BC Ferries as a Crown corporation in 2003 and set it up effectively as a stand-alone authority, it has adopted a 'hands-off' position.

“That's why it has not only ignored the advisory committee report, it has shown no inclination to address the economic impacts on smaller communities that the study outlined.

“So,” said The Province, “what we have here is BC Ferries and the BC government each saying 'not my problem' to the impacts of fast-rising ferry fares.

“When the traveling public demands accountability for this mess, both the BC Ferries' bureaucrats and the Liberal politicians in Victoria quickly run for cover.

“And our premier wonders why his Liberals are now running behind the NDP in public opinion polls?”

While the AGM was being held, the media reported that an Angus Reid Strategies poll found that 58% of British Columbians “believe it is time for a change of government in B.C.” and only “29% believe the BC Liberals should be re-elected.”

Clearly they have managed to discredit themselves with a larger portion of the population than just the residents who depend on BC Ferries. It's not hard to see how they've managed that. They have an agenda, and if you don't like it, too bad. Anyone who thinks they aren't pulling BCF's strings behind the scenes doesn't know sleight-of-hand when they see it.