Many studies, few answers

by Jacqueline Massey

(The Bowen Island Undercurrent. January 15 1999, p3: with permission)


According to a BC Ferries planning analysis team, Route 8 -- the run from Horseshoe Bay to Snug Cove -- experiences an annual operating shortfall of approximately $1.5 million. One third of the sailings are overloaded and on-time performance is considered extremely poor.

However, local demand for service continues to build. According to statistics compiled by BC Ferries, over the last 12 years, vehicle and passenger traffic has grown by about 100 percent. During the last fiscal year, 1.123 million passengers and 471,000 automobile equivalents rode the Queen of Capilano to and from Snug Cove.

Finding the right formula that will maximize service to ferry customers and minimize costs to BC Ferries remains the goal of stakeholders, advisory councils, staff and management. And although there are a lot of proposals floating around, there is also a lot of disagreement on how to reach the shared goal. In the meantime, costs keep going up.

At the end of the 1996/97 fiscal year, the Corporation showed a loss of $76 million. One year later, it reported an additional $59 million loss, bringing the deficit from a total of $33 million dollars at the end of March, 1997 to $92 million at the end of March, 1998.

Meanwhile, various tactics have been employed to help BC Ferries tackle its financial woes.

The Coastal Council, volunteers from 12 stakeholder processes and representatives from chambers of commerce, tourism associations, the BC Ferry & Marine Workers' Union, the BC Trucking Association and the Islands Trust were charged with the job of finding ways to assist the government and the Corporation in developing a sustainable financial framework. The Council has just submitted its preliminary report to the minister in charge of BC Ferries.

It's primary recommendation is that the government recognize that the ferries are a critical part of the provincial highway system. They also advised that the break-even financial target for individual routes, proposed in the 1996 as a Five Year Plan for BC Ferries be abandoned.

Revenues of the Corporation, including contributions by the federal and provincial government should equal full costs, including depreciation, say the Council. Furthermore any surplus generated by individual routes or division should be used to subsidize those routes where it would be difficult or impossible for expenses and revenues to break-even.

Locally, the Advisory Transportation Committee, appointed by the local director of the Greater Vancouver Regional District and members of the Islands Trust, meets regularly to try to devise ways to lower ferry costs while still maintaining adequate service levels.

Among a host of other issues, they have addressed problems with scheduling, loading and unloading, the high cost of using the Horseshoe Bay terminal, and whether BC Ferries is running a suitable vessel on the 20-minute crossing between the mainland and the island.

Up until recently, BC Ferries touted a Century Class ferry for the Bowen route. In the business case supporting that recommendation, the "spartan" vessel was considered to be the best fit for ferry service on Bowen. An analysis by BC Ferries staff claimed that a new, 100 vehicle, 600 passenger vessel would provide an annual operating savings of $1.2 million along with improved customer service. As late as August of 1998 analysts working in the strategic and corporate planning department at BC Ferries were still building the case for the construction and implementation of such a ferry


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