Editorial: Residents first on the ferry? For real?

Priority boarding for Sunshine Coast residents was one of the suggestions for improving service on Route 3 documented in BC Ferries’ 2017 public engagement report. It’s a perennial idea that tends to resurface whenever the route’s capacity shortfall makes ferry travel intolerable, an ordeal that many locals try to avoid. There’s never been a big push for preferential treatment, however, because few people believe BC Ferries would seriously consider it.

Yet that assumption is apparently wrong.

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Last Thursday, responding to an audience question on the topic at a Sechelt and District Chamber of Commerce luncheon, BC Ferries president and CEO Mark Collins said preferential loading for residents is a matter for the community to decide.

“We are capable of doing it, and we will do it if a community were to ask us,” Mr. Collins told Chamber members at the Sunshine Coast Golf and Country Club.

“It’s fundamentally a social policy issue, it’s not a transportation issue,” he said. “Take for example an island that has a heavy tourism component and the residents want preferential access – well, who’s not getting on that ferry now? It’s the tourists. Tourism is business [and] businesses would suffer. Often the distinction we see is between business interest and residential interests, residents naturally wanting the residential preference and businesses not wanting that. We’re not, honestly, going to get into the middle of that debate.

“But, if a community were to come to us and say we have a social objective that we want to achieve and we would like you to operate in this way, we would certainly sit down and discuss that with you.”

After the meeting, BC Ferries spokeswoman Deborah Marshall confirmed that no routes have a policy in place giving residents preferential loading, and she did not provide any details on how the policy would work. “The issue has been raised in conversation on other routes, but there has always been concern from business owners, tourism operators and off-islanders that a two-tiered system would discourage visitors,” she said.

So if it’s up to “the community,” what does that mean? A first step would be for advocates to prove there is in fact widespread support for such a policy. A petition would be an obvious tool. The group could then approach the Southern Sunshine Coast Ferry Advisory Committee, which serves as the public’s conduit to BC Ferries. At some point there would have to be outreach to businesses and it’s a no-brainer that some tourism operators would voice strong opposition – and would that be the cue for BC Ferries to deep-six the idea because “the community” is not onboard?

Which begs the question. Was the BC Ferries president being mischievous, toying with the stakeholders by stoking a little division that could deflect from the substandard service, which is bound to get incrementally worse before it supposedly gets better?

In other words, is this offer for real?

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