Ferry forum debates future of service

by Audrey Grescoe

(The Bowen Island Undercurrent, March 6th 1998, p1: with permission)

Richard Goth, owner of Bowen Freight Ltd. and a founding member of Ferry C.U.R.E., was a panelist at a Feb 4 forum on B.C. Ferry policy.

This forum, the first of its kind held by the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, provided an opportunity to explore economic factors affecting the B.C. Ferry Corporation and to consider the corporation's options. Several speakers speculated on decisions the corporation might make, while others set out models that might be chosen to operate the service in the future. However, it was pointed out by many that decisions regarding the running of B.C. Ferries have been made and will continue to be made for political reasons.

Goth spoke about the commercial implications of the ferry service for coastal communities. Having made the point that the ferry is a filter through which people and supplies must pass, he went on to say that at one time the cost of boarding the ferry was reasonable. “People thinking of moving to the island made foundation decisions based on that. People decided they could put up with the ferry fares.”

Reasoanble fares were also a factor for Goth as a person starting a freight business on the island. Today, however, ferry fares equal what Bowen Freight pays for fuel, doubling the cost of running its trucks.

Goth pointed out that he was required to advertise rate changes a month in advance, but the Ferry Corporation was able to raise its fares without warning. “A business has a hard time planning for the future when that sort of thing comes at us,” he said. He spoke of the dampening of entrepreneurial spirit on Bowen because of the ferry fares, citing the departure of Bowen Brewing to the mainland.

Many speakers addressed the question “Is B.C. Ferries running a business or a service?” Goth said. “My feeling is that it is a service. If it is going to be jumped around by the government, then it is a service. But if it is a business, they have to look at the efficiencies of running a business.”

As for the building of fast ferries by Catamaran Ferries International (A wholly owned subsidiary of BC Ferries), Goth made an analogy between his business and the corporation's, pointing out that it would be innappropriate for him to build trucks just because he uses them.

In remarks at the conclusion of the afternoon, Tom Ward, president of B.C. Ferries responded to this issue, saying that the corporation needs shipyards to drydock its ferries and so has reason to support a competitive shipbuilding industry in B.C. Having reached a low of one productive shipyard, the province now has four that are selling ships in the world market. “B.C. Ferries is not staying in the shipbuilding business,” he said, “but we were the catalyst. The private sector is now in a much better state.”

Goth ended his remarks by saying the ferry is our highway and has to be treated as such. If the highway system and the ferry system were equalized in terms of subsidies, that would be fair, he said. Stephen Rogers, former Minister of Transportation and Highways and a Bowen Islander, said he thinks the corporation will sell Catamaran Ferries International. He suggested that separating the terminals from the ferries and operating them on a fee-for-service basis might be a good idea and that it was unfair that the corporation should be expected to transport school children without remuneration from the Ministry of Education.

Doug Symons, MLA for Richmond Centre and chairman of the Caucus Transport Committee, said the fact that ferries are an essential service to commerce, tourism and the public should be included in ferry policy. Service must be given at reasonable cost. If seniors are to travel free, the government should reimburse the B.C. Ferries. He made these predictions: the B.C. Ferries will sell off its assets and routes. On the major routes, it will let a public company run the service and will rent the use of the terminals. Considering unprofitable minor routes, he said it is easy to make an economic model that says we should abandon a community that is being served by a ferry.

David Birchall who owns an inn on Galiano Island and is president of the island's Chamber of Commerce spoke about the social impact on islanders of ferry fare increases—the alienation of island residents cut off from family, medical services and banks on the mainland because of the high cost of travel, the uncertainty of island life, the stress in a community that fears loss of its ferry or increases in fares, and the loss of control in running such a community.

He raised the topic of subsidization of the transit systems in the lower mainland, the subsidization of roads through fuel taxes and vehicle licenses. In B.C. there are 1250 kilometres of maritime highway covered by B.C. Ferries. “If the government subsidized the maritime highway at the same rate it subsidizes the equivalent amount of highways, then there would be no B.C. Ferries [annual deficit, and the debt] could be retired.”

The third panel dealt with economic factors. Dr. Bill Waters of the UBC Faculty of Commerce said the economic rationales for continuing to subsidize ferry travel are not strong. The cost of a bridge, for example, is incurred primarily in its construction, but the cost of a ferry system is in its annual operation.

Michael Goldberg, also a UBC economist, said we are moving out of a period when services were opened as a public good to a more economically driven or market-based model where we will see such things as tolls on roads. He then summarized the government's options for the ferry service, which includes privatizing the entire service, privatizing only the three profitable routes, or selling the corporations assets and leasing them back.

He concluded, “It is clear the old model will not continue to work.”

Ferry C.U.R.E. will meet again at The Legion, Wednesday, March 11 at 7.30 pm.

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