After public outcry from Sunshine Coast residents learning of BC Ferries’ upcoming summer trial, the Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD) has asked the company to consider the public’s response. BC Ferries said the trial is going ahead with a tentative start date of May 26 to make reservations for sailings between June 21 and Oct. 13.
Within 24 hours of giving unanimous support to a trial that would bring 95 per cent reservation capacity and free reservations to Route 3 this summer, the SCRD board released a statement that BC Ferries’ trial is not an SCRD decision nor did the company require endorsement from the SCRD to go ahead.
The April 23 statement says the SCRD, “Town of Gibsons and District of Sechelt are asking for immediate action from BC Ferries to ensure feedback provided from the community in the past 24 hours is taken into consideration. As this trial period continues, the SCRD Board expects continued consultation and updates from BC Ferries.”
That feedback came in the form of many comments on social media and a petition started by Sunshine Coast resident Glenda Sewards, which had reached more than 2,000 signatures before SCRD made its statement calling for consideration of community feedback.
As of April 28, the “Stop BC Ferries and our 3 local governments from running roughshod over Sunshine Coast residents” petition had almost 7,700 signatures. The petition is hosted by change.org, which does not allow site visitors to see the full list of signatures or their location.
The petition cites concerns including reservations being required in both directions, traffic at the Langdale terminal and travel for medical purposes.
“We the people of the Sunshine Coast are demanding that this plan be stopped immediately until proper public consultation takes place with the residents of the Sunshine Coast,” the petition reads.
One comment, from Brad Palm on Facebook, reads: “As one who rides this ferry to get to work and back, I loathe this idea. Consider this: on the day reservations are released, I will spend hours and hundreds of dollars to book and prepay for every trip to and from work all summer. How many sailings will I actually get that line up with my work schedule? Now imagine my work schedule changes (it frequently does) after I have done all this, or I end up working late and can’t make my sailing. I am charged a penalty and have no hope of a standby trip. For the occasional planned trip (ie tourists), maybe it’s better, but for commuters, it’s a disaster.”
In an email statement on April 27, Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons said he’s heard many concerns about Route 3 over the years.
“I’ve heard from people up and down the Sunshine Coast concerned about the Langdale-Horseshoe Bay route, long before I was informed about this newest reservation trial last week. Finding ferry solutions that work for our communities has been a big challenge, and concerns have been raised for a long time about the cost of reservations, sailing waits, medical appointments, on-time performance, cost, and a myriad of other issues that create frustration among residents,” Simons said.
“According to what BC Ferries has told me, this is a test of a possible solution to one of the challenges ferry users regularly face. I was told about the public engagement that led to this trial, as well as the goals they hope to achieve – and if they don’t achieve these goals, the trial will end,” he wrote.
He added: “Feedback is important, and BC Ferries has been hearing from the public directly about their plan so far. The Minister of Transportation is also aware that there are significant concerns about this trial. Apparently there’s some incorrect information circulating about what the trial actually entails, and it’s important for residents to understand the proposed trial so that concerns can be properly addressed.”
BC Ferries executive director of public affairs Deborah Marshall told Coast Reporter in an email following the SCRD’s statement that the trial is going ahead.
“After consultation with Ferry Advisory Committees, key stakeholders, the District of Sechelt, Town of Gibsons and the Sunshine Coast Regional District, BC Ferries has decided to move forward with a trial program to provide travel certainty, reduce stress and improve our customers’ experience on the Sunshine Coast this summer. We are now finalizing the trial’s details and implementation dates,” Marshall said.
“We will ensure the community is well informed about changes to their travel experience this summer. Background information on how the trial will work and the changes that will be required in the way that Sunshine Coast residents and visitors plan for travel are available at bcferriesprojects.ca/aheadtogether.”
The trial will also test payments for non-reserved vehicle fares going in both directions from Langdale and Horseshoe Bay. Customers will be able to reserve up to 45 minutes before sailing, if space is available. Changes to reservations can be made up to 45 minutes before sailing. The remaining five per cent of reservation capacity will be saved for priority emergency vehicles and those travelling with the Medical Assured Loading program, although BC Ferries notes this amount can be adjusted if necessary.
Currently, the reservation capacity on Route 3 is between 40 and 50 per cent, Marshall told Coast Reporter via email, adding the Queen of Surrey can carry approximately 308 vehicles. BC Ferries’ website says that in previous summers, only about one-third of sailings left the dock full.
During the trial, the Experience Card cannot be used to book reservations online, but can still be used to make payment at the terminal. Experience Card holders will not be given further discounts on top of the reduced rates all who book in advance are eligible for during the trial.
Reservations can be made online, by phone or in person. For those without a credit card or internet access, payment can be made over the phone with Mastercard Debit or Visa Debit. In-person advance payments at the terminal administration office can be made in cash.
There will be two new fares on Route 3 during the trial, according to bcferries.com/route3trial as of April 28. The Saver fare, for select sailings at less busy times, will range from $14.50 to $22 one way. With the Prepaid fare, vehicle fares in each direction will be $25. Both fares will require payment in advance. No-shows would face a penalty fee. Currently, reservation fees are $10 when booked more than a week in advance or $17 within seven days each way.
During the trial, travel in each direction would be $33 for vehicles without a reservation, or a $66 round-trip. Currently, the fare for a vehicle is $47 round-trip – a fare increase of 40.4 per cent.
On Dec. 4, 2020, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure announced that BC Ferries, BC Transit and TransLink signed a Safe Restart funds agreement. BC Ferries agreed to freeze fares until March 31, 2021, after which the company would limit fare increases to rate caps established before the pandemic for the next three years.
In 2019, the Office of the BC Ferries Commissioner ruled that BC Ferries could only increase fares by a maximum of 2.3 per cent each year for four years, until March 31, 2024.
BC Ferries Commissioner Sheldon Stoilen told Coast Reporter that he couldn’t speak to specific fares for Route 3, “but I can tell you that, conceptually, what they’re proposing is entirely within the price cap regulations.”
The Office of BC Ferries Commissioner’s fare cap regulation is based on the average fare, not specific fares or proposed increases, and applied on a system-wide basis. This allows BC Ferries some flexibility, Stoilen said, to manage factors such as demand or traffic.
SCRD board chair Lori Pratt told Coast Reporter on Friday, April 23, that the public feels “blindsided” by the trial, and the SCRD has heard from residents that they are confused about how the trial will impact them and demands for more information. Pratt said the board has since been in contact with BC Ferries “to ensure that they are proactive with additional information about this project … to make sure that a lot of the information including the initial feedback from public be taken into consideration moving forward.”
What BC Ferries does with feedback is up to them, Pratt said. She acknowledged the previous public consultation BC Ferries has undertaken specifically in regards to Route 3 and said it’s been clear that another boat will not be added to the route.
“They are doing an incredible amount of work. And we just want to make sure that they’re aware about the feedback and that they’re listening to that as well,” Pratt said.
It’s worth it to try something different, Pratt said, adding, “It is a big change for everyone and we hope it goes forward smoothly, but I think it’s important to note that we have a lot of challenges on our route… This is an innovative change and change is never easy.”
While the SCRD’s statement said other local governments – the Town of Gibsons and District of Sechelt – also gave the trial endorsement, BC Ferries presented to those councils at closed, in-camera meetings.
BC Ferries asked the SCRD for formal endorsement of the trial at the April 22 meeting. In the agenda, the BC Ferries presentation stated, “BC Ferries is asking the Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD) to endorse a trial project this peak summer season that may improve the way people travel between Horseshoe Bay and Langdale on the Sunshine Coast. Should we receive this endorsement, BC Ferries would begin this peak summer season.”
In the presentation to the SCRD on April 22, BC Ferries’ Brian Anderson said the company will be collecting customer feedback during the trial.
The CEO of BC Ferries, Mark Collins, is scheduled to talk about the trial at the public Sechelt Chamber of Commerce meeting at noon on April 30.