January 4, 2002—A high-profile critic of the former NDP government's handling of BC Ferries says the recent Wright Report on the Ferry Corporation's operations is flawed in three main areas.
Bert Paul, a chartered accountant who lives on Bowen Island, is a former director of the successful activist organization FerryCURE (the Coalition of Users to Re-establish Equity).
While he agrees that much of the wide-ranging report on the fast ferries project and BC Ferries is thoughtful and creative, he says its author—independent financial consultant Fred Wright—absolutely ignored a prime rationale for the Ferry Corporation's existence.
“This is a province that is strongly defined by communities that are dependent on waterborne vessels,” Paul says, “and from its very beginning as a public transportation network, BC Ferries was designed by the government—and recognized by the majority of the public—as a logical extension of the highway system.”
“Both the former NDP government and the provincial Liberal Party, when it was in opposition, accepted this reality.”
He points out that on June 25, 1995, ex-Premier Glen Clark replied to the argument of Liberal transportation critic Doug Symons in the Legislature by stating, “I agree with the member that it's an essential part of the highway system.” Paul says that highways as well as ferry routes are routinely subsidized throughout BC—and failure to recognize this can only result in unfair public policy.
The Wright report describes the forgiveness of the $1.1 billion debt for the NDP's misguided fast-ferry program as “a further subsidy to BC Ferries.” But Paul says legal experts have argued persuasively that both the Ferry Corporation and its wholly owned subsidiary Catamaran Ferries International Inc., were really trying to develop an aluminium-construction industry to build fast ferries for international markets. “These actions were an open contravention of Section 6 of the Ferry Corporation Act.”
He maintains that by doing this, the NDP “were pursuing a public policy initiative, not good business practices. Ferry users did not receive this billion-dollar-plus subsidy. The reaility is that the forgiveness of debt—representing these ineligible public policy costs—was shared by all provincial taxpayers.”
Paul also takes issue with the report's claim that cancelling long-established commuter fares on some routes would boost revenues. Wright projects an increase of 50% on the Horseshoe Bay/Bowen Island run if commuter discounts were removed. His critics counter that this flies in the face of the basic economic measure of activity—elasticity of demand—that points out that as prices rise, use declines.
Bert Paul says, “I am confident the current government remembers that the NDP's attempt to discard commuter discounts resulted in a successful public revolt that has become part of our provincial political history.”
He calls on the Ministry of Transport to seize the opportunity to give balanced consideration to the recommendations of the Wright report.
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Page last updated 02-01-04