Ferry consultations an assault on fairness

The second round of BC Ferry public consultations, which included visits to ferry dependent Gulf Islands communities, is a sham parading as a democratic process.

Consultants and provincial government officials faced many bitter and cynical customers on their 20-stop tour in November and December as they sought responses to announced cuts in service and the cancellation of free weekday passenger fares for seniors.

With fare increases of more than 100 percent in a decade and resultant decreases in usage, there has been a decline in the social and economic vibrancy of coastal communities.

The phoney road show was an attempt to shield the province from the brunt of ferry user anger. The illusion, created by Victoria to make citizens believe their voices are really being heard, was received with disbelief and contempt.

The predominant message from the public in the first round was that government must manage and fund ferries with the same enthusiasm they give to the construction and maintenance of highways and bridges. That message was ignored then. And now.

The government’s goal is to reduce the operating budget on 22 smaller ferry runs by 6.1 percent, compared to a desired reduction of only 1.7 percent on the 3 major routes (from the Lower Mainland to Vancouver Island).

Chris Abbott, president of BC Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union, said 85 percent of the ferries’ operating costs are covered by fare-box revenues, the highest percentage of user-pay for any provincial transportation system and among the highest world-wide. He told the standing-room-only Thetis Island consultation meeting on December 11, “The province is telling you that your communities aren’t worth investing in.”At the same meeting, New Democrat MLA Doug Routley said the government’s ferry decision has already been made and now it will “bend the facts to suit their decision.” The only hope to change the decision before new fares and schedules come into effect April 1 is to take the protest directly to the government in, he said. The Liberals are discounting the 30 percent of BC’s population affected by the changes, he added.

A common sentiment expressed during the consultations is that the province discriminates against coastal communities. For example, it unfairly uses terms such as “sustainability”, “subsidies”, and “services” that imply ferries are a gift from the public purse, unlike highways with their unquestioned status as necessities.

Islands Trust Council met with coastal community leaders on December 3 and concluded that ferry changes “present the greatest threat to island economies.” Trust chair Sheila Malcolmson noted the province’s failure “to conduct a socioeconomic assessment of ferry cuts and rate hikes at a time when we are working with communities and government to strengthen economic sustainability.”

Council is “deeply concerned” about the effects on “users’ employment, education and other core activities”.

John Hodgkins, Gabriola’s Ferry Advisory Committee chair, describes the consultation as “a political decision that has little or no recognition of the impact it will have on the lives, employment and businesses of Gulf Islanders.” From an on-line survey (800 respondents) and on-board interviews with Gabriola passengers, he “very quickly concluded that the cuts proposed were untenable to large numbers within the community who would be forced to consider giving up their job or moving off island, all evidence that would have been identified had the desired socioeconomic analysis been conducted. The expectation that the Committee will work with BC Ferries in January to fine tune the proposals to minimize impacts is unrealistic and an insult to our community.”

Bowen Island Municipal Council says the government doesn’t comprehend the damage the ferry cuts will have “on the future economic health and social fabric of Bowen Island.” It has asked to meet with government and ferry officials “to find creative options to the service cuts.”