FERRY TALES by Bruce Mason
• Our ferry system may seem badly broken and beyond repair, but it is merely bent. Every person in BC is being urged to take control once again, to put our ferry system back in service and back on course. It’s in everyone’s best interest to be rowing in the same direction, seizing this opportunity to change direction, to arrive at a destination that we the people determine. To reclaim our rights, our power and our ability to reposition this service to its former status as the best in the world, bar none. Full-stop.
Big business, bad management, out-of-touch government and out-to-lunch policy are cargo to be repositioned or jettisoned. We are the crew and we pay the bills. The good news is that your ferries –like the MV Quinsam, at the top of the page – could be heading into the sunrise, not the sunset that management and government envision. Lovely, isn’t it? Imagine that the folks in the wheelhouse and on deck agree on where we’re going.
It doesn’t take Einstein – or an MBA – to do the math. It’s common sense, good business. But as Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
On April Fool’s Day, 7,000 sailings will be slashed from BC Ferries. Passenger fares will be pushed beyond the already untenable average of an additional 135%, imposed over the past decade. Free trips for seniors are being cancelled. And, oh, yes, slot machines will be tested on a major route.
Why bother to fight this madness? Well, shouldn’t you be able to afford to share a once-in-a-lifetime vacation to Haida Gwaii with your family? Experience the awe of Long Beach? Walk the lawn and steps of our Legislature? Camp out and cycle on the Gulf Islands? This is our birthright, our history, our future, our province, our ferry system. The work and dreams of our ancestors are now being yanked outside the reach of working families, students, seniors.
You can’t afford not to care. Ours is a maritime province; 20% of our population live in ferry-dependent communities. They also contribute more than 35% of our tax revenue; these 20% of people pay 35% of the bills.
Ferry routes are marine highways integrated into transportation infrastructure. That’s how they’re treated on the rest of the planet, from Alaska to Norway.
Now, let’s compare apples to apples. Washington State’s ferry system carries 20 million passengers and eight million vehicles a year, slightly more than BCF, in almost identical conditions and climate. South of the border, there’s one manager for every 40 employees. At BCF, it’s one in six. You read that right. Washington, one manager, 40 employees. BC, one manager for every six employees. That adds up to 17 managers for every single BC ferry, greater in number than the in-service crews of the minor, intermediate vessels and some larger ones, as well.
“It’s a different system,” some say. And they’re right. Washington’s works and the fares are much lower. At BCF, 150 managers are on-board with 450 on-shore. That’s 600 managers compared to 100 managers state-side. BCF reckons the manager-employee ratio is more like one in 10 – questionable, but still way out of whack; at the very least, four times the ratio in Washington, more than quadruple.
Now: remuneration. The public was justifiably enraged by recent hefty bonuses to BCF managers, despite sinking ridership and skyrocketing debt and fares. Taxpayers demanded a change. Many people are now scratching their heads in dismay, including business leaders and Chris Abbott, president of the 4,000-member BC Ferry and Marine Workers Union. Abbott says, “The fix was in. Bonuses were rolled into managers’ base pay, on average $100,000, all of which is now pensionable.”
BC Ferries CEO Michael Corrigan’s total compensation will be $500,730 in 2014, down from $915,000 in 2012. That includes a base salary of $364,000, a bonus, two pensions and a vehicle allowance. Former CEO David Hahn, a prior architect to the mess, draws $300 grand a year from BCF, for life. David Moseley, head of the Washington ferry system, made just $165,943 last year, in total.
“If Moseley’s salary grew by the rate of inflation every year, it would take 62 years to match Corrigan’s pay,” calculates Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
At BCF, 450 managers make, on average, $200,000 annually – an underestimation. That’s 70 million dollars. Directors make up to $100 grand for part-time work and don’t even keep minutes of their meetings.
Where do you think cuts need to be made?
By now (be patient), some readers will be asking, “Why don’t Islanders just move?” That’s a tired and uninformed question from inhabitants of flood plains, farmland, far-flung regions and mountainous terrain. Instead of questioning why people choose to live on the North Shore, in Whistler, Nelson, or Prince George, realize that coastal communities help pay for bridges, tunnels, highways, including the Sea to Sky, and other components of transportation infrastructure.
They also pay 85% of the operating costs of our ferry system at the fare box – that’s higher than anywhere else in the world, certainly higher than the less than 40% paid on all other BC transportation links.
Right here, right now, this proposed plan is killing jobs – good, clean, sustainable work created by small business and risk-taking entrepreneurs to build healthy communities, long-term. Jobs in far greater number than pipe dreams of short-term resource extraction and export, with no value added. Government policy is killing wonderful, proud communities that pre-date European contact – settlements that existed before virtually all other towns in BC.
Here’s the other side of the coin: BC’s tourism industry generated $13.5 billion in 2011. Please look again at the big picture. Coastal communities are primary tourism drivers. Ferries are people movers, one artery of an essential industry that helps diversify our economy. They require astute, inclusive management and oversight.
One much-touted brand of BC Ferries was the Discovery Tour Route, providing access to the Cariboo Chilcotin, a last frontier and one of the world’s great drives. The run is being cut in hopes of saving $1.4 million. Where the pine beetle wiped out logging and lumbering, early estimates from tour operators – who are struggling to create a new economy – indicate a revenue loss of more that $10 million. As cancellations flood in, that number is rising (see Letters, pg 16).
BCF hopes to save $400,000 on the Gabriola/Nanaimo run, less than one top BCF executives’ pay. The island economy will lose $6 million in business, 176 jobs will disappear and every member of the graduating class – which travelled to high school daily on the ferry – say they will be forced to leave. Those cheap shots from BCF are unsustainable and unreasonable in any community. And that’s just the start of what coastal communities will be reporting, as they rise up.
Time to fess up and finally admit what is really wrong. The 2003 Coastal Ferry Act – creating the quasi-privatized, commercial monopoly that is BC Ferries – doesn’t work, never did. That’s patently obvious. Abbott and others report that the single biggest BCF cost increase is servicing debt. It’s tripled in 10 years, from $64 million to $208 million. In the next decade, $1.2 billion is projected. And the government doesn’t want that debt to show up in their budget, instead they want users to pay for their mismanagement.
“This is a user-pay program. How much are you prepared to pay?” is his question along with “How high are fares going to have to go to cover that size of debt? A stroke of a pen would save a lot of money and unnecessary grief. Roll ferries back into Highways, pick up capital costs at a cheaper government rate and then cover operational costs.”
In the meantime, Ministry of Highway’s Interior ferries are fare free. New lake ferry? Government provides it. But when BCF needs one, money is borrowed, the cost collected at the fare box. Much too much of the so-called “massive” ferry subsidy (about $180 million, unchanged in a decade) goes into amortization and interest charges.
BCF has done no socioeconomic study of impacts or consulted the people who pay for and operate our ferries, day in, day out. They can’t say how many jobs and how much revenue will be lost. With no plans beyond 2016, new ferries will be built, most likely offshore, fuelled by LNG, fracked from sacred, pristine ground. Surely, Gulf Islands aren’t being de-populated to be scooped up by elites because residents don’t like supertankers, pipelines or don’t often vote Liberal?
The Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer dismisses legitimate complaints as “squawking.” That’s a far different perspective than Stephen Hume’s assessment of BCF (Sun, April 9, 2011) as “the arrogant, insensitive monstrosity into which W.A.C. Bennett’s inclusive dream of making the ferries an extension of the highway system has evolved.”
Coastal residents are not disposable. We have families too, Madam Premier. And when you cut off ferries, we also lose paramedics, volunteer firefighters and elementary school teachers.
Our fragile, volunteer-based social services are being shredded by a debt we didn’t incur, a debt that is beyond the ability of honest people to single-handedly pay. Our once proud, no-frills, commuter ferry service is sinking under an unmanageable load, accumulated by outrageously expensive mismanagement, Fast Cat and foreign-built ferries and the like. We know how to – and do – run our ferries and calculate BCF should be a fraction of the current cost, without big-buck salaries and bonuses.
Coastal communities may be down but they’re not out, far from it. Uniting like never before, pooling their ideas into real solutions, they are reaching out to everyone in BC with a new vision for BC Ferries that will get us – all of us – moving again. Get on board. Full steam ahead.
It’s time to scrap this unworkable Coastal Ferries Act. We were promised “stable rates, flexible schedules and economic vitality.” Now, Transportation Minister Todd Stone, on orders from on high, is forcing coastal communities to take this final walk down the plank. It will take generations for them to be revived. At the same time yet another $200 million is being spent at Horseshoe Bay and a glossy BCF magazine is being produced for thousands of dollars.
Once again, where do you think cuts must be made? That’s something to ask your MLA. This goes beyond constituencies and provincial parties, beyond fairness or even the dream of a level playing field. This ferry tale plan is just plain wrong and counterproductive on so many levels. “Stop this madness,” coastal communities are saying. “Enough of these crazy-making plans. You are quite literally killing us. BCF is leaking from the top.” Act now to save our coastal communities.
Now that you’re in the big picture, it is time to act. To find out how you help save our ferry system, visit and bookmark www.bcmarinehighway.org