BC Ferries' answers fail to satisfy

by Jacqueline Massey

(The Bowen Island Undercurrent, January 15 1999, p2: with permission)
What exactly has the British Columbia Ferry Corporation done to earn the ire of ferry users on Bowen? And why does it continue to make decisions that enrage the public and cause members of the Bowen Island Advisory Transportation Committee to quit in despair?

Some speculate that the BC Ferries is an unwieldy bureaucracy, run by management that is arrogant and out of touch. Others say that the crown corporation is floundering due to its venture into shipbuilding and the required capital infusion needed to support the fast-ferry program. As a result, management is under increased pressure to generate major savings, in any way that it can.

That explanation as to why Bowen has been seemingly snubbed again by the ferry corporation seemed to ring true from what Glen Brown, executive vice-president, inter-island services for BC Ferries told members of the BIATC at their meeting last week. Brown admitted that the most recent proposal to move the Queen of Capilano to the Southern Gulf Islands and replace it with a considerably smaller vessel, the Howe Sound Queen and a passenger-only ferry service to run during peak periods was not conceived with the best interests of Bowen in mind.

Brown says by moving forward on the proposal tailored by stakeholders of the Southern Gulf Islands, he can realize substantial savings of between $2 and $3 million by redeploying vessels of the BC Ferry fleet. That's an opportunity he says he can't afford to lose.

"Don't get me wrong. I'm not expecting that everybody is going to love our suggestions," said Brown on January 7. "I fact, I don't expect anyone to love it.

"From a BC Ferry Bowen Island user point of view, it's obviously unpalatable and maybe unacceptable but nonetheless, I have to examine it at length."

Brown stuck to his argument that he has to consider initiatives that will bring about system-wide cost reductions, even if it means Bowen Island will have to bear the brunt of inconveniences caused by changes to service. But those who object to the plan which, if implemented will see vessels being moved by the summer of 1999, refused to accept that the people of Bowen should suffer for the good of the corporation.

Many objected to the social costs of deploying the Howe Sound Queen on the Bowen run. The vessel, built 35 years ago, is ill-equipped to provide adequate amenities to those who are handicapped, physically challenged or travelling with small children. There are no elevators and no heated passenger lounges on the car deck. Critiques of the vessel contend that this will result in restricted access to the island.

Tracy Chambers, one of the two locally elected Islands Trust members insisted that "these social impacts should not be left out of the equation." Brown responded by saying that he felt that while they might be important, they were not what he considered "deal-breaking issues."

The need for the delivery of emergency services, such as the delivery of BC Hydro trucks that were brought onto the island during wind storms and blackouts like those experienced earlier this winter, was noted by members of the BIATC. It was pointed out that when it served the community eight years ago, the Howe Sound Queen didn't always run in poor weather. If sailings are cancelled, how would emergency services be delivered, many wanted to know. Brown said he did not have an answer to the question.

Nor could he respond to questions about the impact of changes on fares saying only that the tariffs are set by provincial cabinet. Of all questions asked by committee members, the most concerned the probability of increased schedule delays and overloads due to decreased capacity.

Since the Howe Sound Queen runs at lower speeds than the Queen of Capilano -- 9.5 knots vs. 14 knots -- it was speculated that the ferry would be constantly late. Although Brown concurred that this might be true, he promised that BC Ferries would agree to carry all vehicles lined up for scheduled Bowen crossings, even if it meant adding an extra sailing in the evening.

Considering that the ferry has room for only 70 cars, Doug Sinkinson pointed out, this would create a marshalling nightmare as cars are backed up along the highway. It would also increase overtime costs for the crew of the vessel.

Earlier, in statements issued in December from the Corporation, Brown had suggested that a 16-car ferry, the Nimpkish, would help alleviate overloads, running from late June to Labour Day. During the meeting however, he said that was probably not an option because he had been informed that the vessel, and another 16-car ferry that might have been considered, would not pass Coast Guard safety standards.

Asked if there were any other ship options, Brown replied that there were none. "I don't have a spare vessel sitting in the barn that I can bring out and put on the route," he commented during an interview a few days before the meeting. In fact, if anything was to happen to the Howe Sound Queen or even the Queen of Capilano for that matter, if either vessel needed to be repaired or refitted for instance, there is no back-up ferry available at the moment to service the Bowen route, Brown confirmed.

What Brown did offer as a solution to relieving vehicle traffic and taking the pressure off the Howe Sound Queen was the proposed 38-passenger catamaran which would make eight round-trip sailings during peak periods from Monday to Friday and be linked to bus service run by BC Transit. However, he admitted that it wouldn't be effective unless people can be convinced to get out of their cars for the three-nautical-mile long crossing back and forth to Bowen.

As it works out, a lot of people would have to be convinced that their vehicles should stay off the Howe Sound Queen.

According to the draft business plan completed in December, to "generally avoid leaving vehicles at Horseshoe Bay at the end of the day, the Corporation must encourage a reduction of a minimum of 15 vehicles (per overloaded sailing)." However, even to keep service levels consistent with current levels, (at which 711 annual overloaded sailings are expected), during the highest peak demand, a reduction of 120 vehicles (per overload sailing) would be necessary. It is unequivocally stated in the business plan that the feasibility of the pilot project, which would cost the Corporation about $500,000, is entirely dependent on the running of a 70-vehicle vessel on the Bowen route. While the existing service has an estimated annual cost of $3,775,289, it is expected that substituting a 70-vehicle vessel would have a net cost reduction of $659,000 when all costs and revenue reductions of the new passenger service are factored in.

In addition to recommending that the Board of Directors authorize the sponsorship of a 12 to 18 month pilot for the foot passenger ferry starting on or about April 1, 1999, the plan calls for the replacement of the Queen of Capilano by a smaller ship.


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