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B.C. Ferries data disputed, engagement process dubbed ‘a distraction’

Public consultation
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John Gleeson Photo

Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons is flanked by Sechelt Coun. Alice Lutes, left and Gambier Island ferry advisory rep Joyce Clegg during the morning stakeholders session, a precursor to the afternoon public ferries consultation on Saturday, Dec. 1 in Gibsons.

Former ferry advisory committee (FAC) members were among the presenters who ripped into the data on B.C. Ferries and the solutions offered as part of the province’s community engagement sessions in Gibsons on Dec. 1.

While the province’s discussion guide identifies a $6.17-million shortfall in 2011/12 for route 3 (Langdale to Horseshoe Bay), in fact, operating revenue exceeded operating expenses by $5.386 million, said Jakob Knaus, a former FAC member.

“It is only when amortization and financing charges of $11.5 million are deducted from this positive result that we arrive at a shortfall of $6.17 million as you indicate,” Knaus told the panel. “For the provincial highways, such charges are taxpayer funded and we strongly advocate that the same financing system is applied to B.C. Ferries, including route 3.”

Since 1995, Knaus said, the tariff fares charged to route 3 passengers have been the highest of all routes on a “passenger/vehicle mile travelled” basis. Even with Experience Cards, rates are higher than those on major routes, he said, while commercial vehicle rates are “much higher” than on routes to Vancouver Island.

“This huge cost affects all our residents, whether they travel by ferries or not, because everything that comes to our Coast and what leaves travels by ferry. It adversely affects our cost of living,” he said.

Bob Jones, who sat on the original FAC for route 3, blasted the capacity utilization figures for omitting over-height vehicles and overloads. Though panel members said the figures were based on average vehicle lengths and therefore included those categories, other presenters backed Jones’ point, saying average figures were not a true representation of an actual sailing.

“What you need to do is hire somebody in your office who knows ferries, because what I see here is garbage,” Jones added.

One reason the province says it wants to find savings in the ferry system is the cost of labour, which rose 24 per cent from 2004 to 2012. But that increase is below the 27 per cent hike in the Consumer Price Index for the same period, noted Jef Keighley, a current FAC member who spoke as chair of Sunshine Coast Council of Senior Citizens’ Organization.

“So it’s not fair to talk about labour costs going up. It’s simply incorrect,” he said.

Keighley was one of many presenters to critique the consultation process itself, saying it “creates the illusion of consultation,” while providing the public with a list of service options with no supportive financial analysis.

“Take alternate fuels,” Keighley said. “That’s a decision to be made exclusively by B.C. Ferries. That’s not a public consultation issue.”

“I find this session to be an absolute distraction from the real issues,” said business owner Erich Schwartz.

“These are the wrong questions at the wrong time,” said Nicholas Simons, MLA for Powell River - Sunshine Coast, who noted that “out of 85 ridings in the province, we’re the only ferry-dependent one.”

In its discussion guide, the province asked whether local property taxes should be raised to help cover the cost of ferries.

Lorne Lewis, Sunshine Coast Regional District director for Elphinstone, pointed to the hypocrisy of proposing local tax contributions while B.C. Ferries is appealing its property tax assessment on terminals such as Langdale.

Jim Cleghorn, representing the Sechelt and District Chamber of Commerce, called the B.C. Ferries assessment appeals “abhorrent” decisions. “How many ways do you want us to pay for this system?” he asked.

Route 3 FAC chair Barry Cavens noted that in the consultation handouts, the 6:20 a.m. sailing on Sunday and last sailing of the day are shaded in red, “implying they may be principal candidates for cuts.”

Kevin Richter, assistant deputy minister of Transportation and Infrastructure, said no decision on service cuts would be made until after the consultants’ report on the public engagement is submitted to government in February.

He called the consultation process “a fantastic opportunity to inform government,” which, he added, “will have to make an important decision on how it’s going to view the system.”


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