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Sunshine Coast FAC meeting raises concerns new and old

The June 17 meeting at Seaside Centre was followed up by a public drop-in sessionĀ 
BC Ferries' Queen of Surrey prepares to dock in Horseshoe Bay, B.C., on June 15, 2023. NICK PROCAYLO, PNG

Over the course of more than two hours on Saturday, June 17, the Southern Sunshine Coast Ferry Advisory Committee (FAC) and BC Ferries representatives gathered to discuss a variety of community concerns with the local ferry service. 

The meeting was held just five days before the summer schedule came into effect for Route 3 on June 22.

A press release announcing the schedule predicts a busy summer season with more sailings and more staff “however, customers should expect some cancellations.” Additional vessels are being added to several BC Ferries routes for three months, requiring BC Ferries’ largest system-wide hiring initiative in the company’s 63 years — adding more than 1,200 staff, including professional mariners from Ukraine. 

“We’ve done a lot to ensure smooth sailing this summer, but we need to be prepared that not all ships will sail all of the time,” BC Ferries president and CEO Nicolas Jimenez said in the release. “Even though we have more people, we are short back-up staff in key positions to cover unexpected absences. I hope customers will continue to offer their understanding as we grapple with retirements and a global shortage of 21,000 professional mariners.”

During the FAC meeting in Sechelt, the summer schedule was a hot topic. BC Ferries representatives said they are now recruiting for next summer — 2024 — to provide supplementary service.

Steve Anderson, the manager of fleet deployment and scheduling, said they had hoped to provide supplemental sailings seven days a week on Route 3, particularly on Tuesday and Wednesday, but it would have taken a second crew which couldn’t happen due to recruiting pressures.

Sunshine Coast representatives raised their concerns that the summer schedule does not reflect the Coast’s peak season. Cheryl Hurlbut said it’s not just summer, but the Coast’s busy season actually extends from spring break through the October Thanksgiving long weekend. 

Southern Sunshine Coast FAC chair Diana Mumford raised the reduction of the “commuter” sailing at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in the summer as a long-standing and significant issue that she remembers discussing in 2013. FAC member Kate-Louise Stamford (who also represents West Howe Sound and the islands on the Sunshine Coast Regional District Board) said it also affects the islanders trying to make their connecting passenger ferries and cuts down their ability to go into lower mainland locations.

BC Ferries representatives said the summer sailings are spaced out with the intention to help loading capabilities. To this, Mumford pointed to the 4:45 and 5:30 sailings as a “pinch point” that compounds and makes other sailings late. (On the topic of the current conditions feature on BC Ferries website, one of the staff said a new software will be installed in the fall to make that more accurate.)

Accessibility concerns

Mumford outlined the FAC’s priorities early in the meeting as increased capacity and reliability. She noted that these topics have been discussed repeatedly with no improvements, and said the June 17 meeting will be focusing on short-term issues. In the fall, the FAC will review and comment on BC Ferries’ performance term 6.

Some of those short-term issues addressed in the meeting include how employees can help ensure disabled people have access to washrooms. Several people shared stories of people with disabilities being unable to leave their vehicles — blocked by other cars or not given the accessible parking space on board — to use the washroom. 

Mumford has also received complaints about the lack of access to facilities, water and washrooms in particular, before and after the toll booths. She said she is concerned this will become a health issue, particularly when waiting in the heat.

BC Ferries representatives at the meeting confirmed there is a misting station set up, but everything beyond BC Ferries property is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) and requires permits. BC Ferries is restricted in what can be placed outside of the terminal. Rebecca Jaimeson of BC Ferries also noted the washrooms at Horseshoe Bay — previously closed by rockslide — reopened on the May long weekend. However, the admin washroom has been closed because drug use and people sleeping there made it unsafe to keep open. Jaimeson said needles became a hazard. In response, members of the FAC called for a solution in order not to put more pressure on local businesses, and asked if they could advocate to MOTI themselves.

As for accessible parking spaces, the policy is to put on your flashing lights to indicate a need for assistance. 

Mumford said she hears accessibility issues regularly on the Coast. “We completely understand that there's policy to help with that, but what we’re seeing is that the practice is not following the policy, and it’s not helping people,” she said, sharing a personal experience of not being able to leave her vehicle. 

“We’re really asking that we  get more than just policy - we need to have a process where  people are being acknowledged and supported rather than struggling to get through walkers, strollers, wheelchairs, electric wheelchairs. I know we’ve brought this up many times. We want action,” Mumford said. 

Although the accessibility committee was referenced several times during the meeting, Mumford later pointed out to Coast Reporter that the most recent meeting minutes for that committee (on BC Ferries’ website) are from June 13, 2018 — five years ago. In an email, BC Ferries executive director of public affairs, Deborah Marshall, said the accessibility committee meets biannually with representatives from various organizations, and minutes from those meetings will be uploaded to the website shortly. 

When will the Langdale terminal see upgrades?

Stamford mentioned the “mythical” upgrades proposed for Route 3 that have yet to happen, and suggested having a timeline would be helpful. 

Mumford added some context: community engagement on a development plan for the Langdale terminal began in 2017 (a phase 3 engagement summary was published in 2019), and although the federal government contributed $17 million and it’s still listed on BC Ferries’ website, the project is not in the current 12-year capital plan. According to the company’s website the 2013 project plan has a “time horizon” of 25 years. A more recent project, to modernize check-in technology at five terminals does not include Langdale.

BC Ferries director of community relations Carrie McIntosh said those decisions are made at a much higher level and she will check in on an update.

Annie Wise of Sunshine Coast Tourism said in her 15 years on the Coast, she’s seen projects plan engagement sessions and then disappear. “I think the challenge is it continually creates this culture of distrust… I just want to underscore that larger issue that it’s not just one project going by the wayside and the feelings that creates across the table, and how we can perhaps navigate that going forward. 

Support for students

One of the first people to address the table was Brenda Masich, an automotive and metal work teacher at Chatelech Secondary School. She shared her experience organizing students’ drag racing team, which races provincially (and sometimes internationally) from April to September, but not qualifying for the BC Ferries Sport Experience Program since the team is less than 10 people. Her concern extended to other school club sports such as golf and ski/snowboard teams who are unable to make reservations for a return ferry to the Coast, since they don’t know when they will be eliminated from the competition. 

Masich is asking BC Ferries to consider small school groups and give priority loading in the form of vouchers from the schools. She said it gives her a lot of anxiety to think about not making the ferry coming home.

Sunshine Coast School District (SD46) is also asking BC Ferries to provide more opportunities for students to shadow the company’s workers and learn more about job opportunities. Sue Girard, a school board trustee who sits on the FAC, said the district’s career program is run incredibly well and often gets requests from students for information about BC Ferries, especially for students who want to stay in their home communities after graduation.

The FAC meeting was held at the Seaside Centre in Sechelt, where later that day, BC Ferries hosted a public drop-in session. Approximately 34 people attended, and a variety of topics were brought up including additional route sailings, resident boarding priority and terminal amenity improvements, Deborah Marshal of BC Ferries told Coast Reporter. BC Ferries will post a summary of the engagement on its website in mid-July.