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General News · 19th September 2011
Ralph Nursall
This was sent to the Transportation Minister 7 August, 2011, with copies to Claire Trevena and Jim Abram.

Dear Minister Lekstrom,

My wife and I have lived contentedly and productively on Cortes Island since 1988, where we have held property since 1977. Such a life as an island-dwelling British Columbian is steadily and rapidly becoming more difficult. We are effectively being isolated from the rest of our province. You will be aware that 'minor route' traffic is declining. I dare say that the next census will show that island populations are declining, and it is clear that property sales on ferry-dependent islands have drastically declined. I say, unequivocally, that a major component of these declines is the ill-conceived and untenable theory that travel by residents to their island homes should be a source of profit for private companies. If we pay taxes to support roads to, say, Chetwynd or Zeballos, why do we discriminate so fiercely against, say, Manson's Landing or Lyall Harbour? We have always paid a token fare, and the island communities have thrived; that seems better to me than seeking a profitable fare, which will not be achieved, because of diminishing returns. Neither the company nor the government will ever benefit; their dream is not within reach – and is a nightmare to the people who are expected to provide it!

Let me establish a baseline for understanding the problem, quoting directly from my BCFC Purchase Receipt of 2011/06/14, for travel between Campbell River and Cortes Island:
20' Undersize Vehicle................$44.25
2 Adult.....................................37.90
Fuel Surcharge.......................4.00
Total................................….$86.15

That is what BCFC charges two adults for a round trip journey between Cortes Island and the closest urban centre, where, unlike the island, there are medical specialists, lawyers, automobile sales and service, insurance offices, furniture and appliance stores, government services, churches, optometrists, a wide range of grocery stores, bakeries, restaurants, hardware, building supplies, stationery outlets, computer sales and service, banks, men's and ladies' wear (including work and dress clothes, and shoes), cinema, concert hall, chandlers, and chiropractors! For these and other opportunities, often hastily needful, rural residents have to go to town. The cost quoted above is for a trip that takes approximately 45 minutes on one ferry and 10 minutes on a second. Double that time for the round trip, so ferry time is about 110 minutes – or worth about $0.78/minute – which is like a wage of $47.00/hour. Is ferry travel just for the rich? Of course, the trip from Cortes Island also includes a nine km drive across Quadra Island, as well as varied, often inconvenient, wait times at each ferry terminal, coming and going. Counting only wait time at the Quathiaski Cove connection, the most rapid completion of the trip (one way) is 85 minutes; if one takes the first ferry from Cortes at 7:50 a.m., one arrives at Campbell River at about 9:15 a.m. Return time is much the same; travel to and from Campbell River takes at least three hours of the day, of which about an hour is in between ferries, and that does not count waiting time at the Cortes Island and Campbell River terminals, to start the trip in either direction. Nor is waiting time without cost to the traveller! And the storage value of my Experience Card is only $85.00!

Of course, as an island resident, I do have access to an Experience Card, with which I can expect certain favours. As a senior citizen, I am able also to travel free Monday through Thursday, paying only the vehicle fare. My increasing decrepitude also allows me to travel using the BC Travel Assistance Program, which covers all of ferry travel expense, to enjoy specific medical treatment not available on Cortes Island . As it turns out, use of the TAP, seniors' travel, and, I presume, Experience Card benefits, is of great advantage to the Ferry Corporation, for the BCFC simply bills the BC Government full adult charges for such special treatments. That leads to the somewhat unusual state of affairs in which the BC Government, as the sole stakeholder in the BC Ferry Corporation, is one of the most important contributors to the travel income of the Corporation. That is to say, the Government pays a significant portion of its dividends back to the BCFC (assuming its stake provides some dividends). Since the BC Government represents the citizens of the province, what I am saying is that the Government is simply juggling our money for the benefit of a private company – which is now the owner of what was once was once a prideful public project of the province!

This has been a very difficult letter to write, largely because of the extravagant accounting that accompanies Experience Card use, with its fuel corrections, fuel rebates, UH & PASS savings, Seniors' days, and TAP adjustments. But just for fun, let's compare a similar BCFC Purchase Receipt for 2007/10/29, with the one above, for travel between Campbell River and Cortes Island:
20' Undersize Vehicle.........$28.75
2 Adult................................25.20
2 Fuel Surcharge..................3.60
1 Fuel Surcharge UH............4.80
Total...............................$62.35

From October, 2007 to June, 2011, the cost of going to town from Cortes Island rose by 38%! That is certainly above both the inflation and the Cost of Living rates. The private regime saves the Government very little, while the resident public directly pays a huge amount, just to stay connected its province! What does it cost a resident of Ladysmith to drive to Nanaimo? And how often can it be done each day? Cortes Islanders can only travel to town six times a day (five on Sundays and Tuesdays), and pay hugely for the privilege. Maybe we should be allowed to travel more cheaply and often, simply as BC residents and taxpayers. Some years ago, it was shown (letter in North Island Weekender, 4 January, 2003) that Cortes Islanders and businesses spent about $6,000,000 per year in Campbell River in direct expenditure, i.e. not counting income tax, property tax, and other governmental assessments by means of which we support the services we are supposed to receive. That sounds like a positive contribution for a population of about 1000!

The last trip I took to Campbell River left me a Purchase Receipt dated 2011/06/20:
20' Undersize Vehicle................$44.25
1 BC Senior................................0.00...............($18.95)
1 UH Savings............................14.40-..............($14.40)
Fuel correction/surcharge...........1.45
Total...................................…..$31.30...............($33.35)

The figures in parentheses are the estimated amounts billed to the Government by the BCFC, to make the Company appear to be approaching profitability. You paid more than I did for my trip, and, I dare say, probably more than you would have, had the ferry service been a Crown Corporation public service, rather than a profit-seeking private enterprise.

Not for one moment do I question the rightness of the Government to subsidize seniors or those travelling for medical reasons. What I do question is the rightness, even the usefulness of the Government to slough off responsibility for public service (e.g. public highways) to private profiteering. BC's minor route ferries do not work effectively as a private enterprise. Even with competition, such ferries could not operate profitably, unless the islands became populated as densely as Vancouver – neither immediately likely nor desirable.

One last comparison: I came upon a 2002 BCFC Passenger & Vehicle Fares brochure amidst the papers I have accumulated. At that time, the fare for two adults and vehicle, return, Campbell River-Cortes Island was listed as $47.50. Compared to the 2011 fare shown above, $86.15, one derives an average annual fare increase, above the 2002 rate, for that island couple of 9%, for that nine-year period. I should point out that as long ago as October, 2003, in response to rising ticket prices, a Fair Ferry Fares account had been established at the local Credit Union, created from small individual donations, to support local activity favouring recognition of the ferry system as part of the provincial highway system, not as a source of profit for a private company. The Fair Ferry Fares account is still open.

At this time, on Cortes Island, there are an estimated 25-30 developed properties for sale, primarily by individuals or families seeking to leave because of the increasingly unmanageable costs of living in this part of British Columbia. There has been very little response to the purchase opportunities offered. Two large commercial operations (the biggest grocery/general stores) are for sale; not much interest has been shown by presumptive buyers. It is widely recognized that the islands at the end of minor ferry routes are not of much interest to government planners or urban entrepreneurs.

Islanders are deeply disappointed and resentful of the view held of them by the BC Government. Islanders are voters, taxpayers, entrepreneurs, artists and artisans, builders, tradespeople, commentators – the full variety of BC residents is found among us. We are part of the fibre and framework of the province, part of its strength. Our activities flow to the benefit of BC. We are not just some passive body, isolated and pastured on the fringe, held there to be milked for private profit. We would like to be recognized as part of the whole. And that should include ease of travel, not penalties for settling and bringing into production places beyond dry highways!

It does seem to be obvious that there must be some reassessment and reorganization of the 'Minor Route' ferries to make them useful once again to island residents and fully contributory to the well-being of British Columbia.
Respectfully submitted,

J. R. Nursall