BC Ferries is bent. Let’s fix it.

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.

Cars fill the decks of a BC ferry“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

16 thoughts on “BC Ferries is bent. Let’s fix it.”

  1. Where did the facts and figures for this write-up come from?

    450 managers averaging $200K? According to who? Vancouver Sun public sector salary database lists 11 employees over $200K for the most recently reported year. Saying that 450 managers average $200K seems suspect at best, purely fictional at worst.

    We pay 85% of operating costs at the farebox? According to what? BCF financial statements have the combined revenues from passenger fares, vehicle fares, and fuel surcharges at 68% for each of the last 2 fiscal years. Also, where did the 40% you are comparing to come from?

    Where does the information come from to show that 20% of BC’s population are living in ferry-dependent communities and that they contribute 35% of taxes?

    Regarding Gabriola and the impact of service cuts here… where does the info come from to support the $6 million impact? Where does the info come from to support the 176 job losses? And the students… every member of the graduating class say they will be forced to leave? Really? Every single member? What is the source of this?

    There is some good points in this write-up, however I feel that they get buried by the amount of unsupported, unverifiable, and in some cases completely incorrect facts and figures. If your argument is strong enough to stand on its own, why pump it full of misinformation?

  2. Will Christy get rid of the Coastal Ferries Act?

    Will the BC Liberals ever admit they sold BC Rail (in a fraudlent manner, no less)?

    No, the people of BC voted to keep this red-light-running Premier. THey chose to elect a Premier that unpologitically went to the Calgary Oilpatch to solicit election funds. (This is legal in our banana province, taking donations out-of-province. )

    The people of BC get the government they deserve. Sure, the NDP kinda suck right now but they would’ve been better than Clark, Abbott and the rest of the used car salesman that don’t even bother holding legislature any more, they are too busy giving their corporate donors these 200K+/year jobs. Just keep paying your taxes and shut up.

  3. Good article, especially highlighting the difference in the Washington State Ferry system. I had the pleasure of using that system in October and it is far better managed than BC Ferries. Most interesting was their reservation system, either highly recommended or an absolute must on some routes, and an easy system to access online. My reservation could be changed as much as I needed before the actual date of sailing and my reservation “fee” was actually a deposit. The sailing I was on, Port Townsend to Whidbey Island was only half the cost a comparable BC Ferries route, Langdale to Horseshoe Bay.
    The cost to travel on BC Ferries has increased to the point that many people, those who live in the coastal communities and those who would visit them, can no longer afford the “choice” of travelling. Many people living on a low income cannot afford to tie up funds on a BC Ferries Experience card so cannot take advantage of the savings this card gives. This is a hardship for many people.
    I live on the Sunshine Coast and there is no highway servicing our community from the Mainland, so we are ferry dependent. Ridership on the ferries is down, yet the sensible solution, to decrease fares making it more affordable for everyone to travel is never looked at by BC Ferries. Instead the price has increased far more the Cost of Living in the 14 years since I moved to the Coast. At that time, I could decide on a whim, to catch a ferry and car and driver were only $25.00 roundtrip. That same trip now costs almost $70.00 and will be increasing again in a few months.
    I owned a business on the Sunshine Coast and in the time it was open saw the negative impact of the fare increases to our tourism dollars. What used to be a wonderful way to spend a day or a weekend, taking a trip to the Sunshine Coast, has become a hassle and an expense that most Lower Mainlanders forgo for trips south to Washington or east to the Fraser Valley and beyond.
    We’ve had enough – but does anyone in the government actually care?

  4. This is an excellent write up. Is there anyway to get this out to more people. Maybe submit to editors of other bc newspapers? Can I do anything?

    • may I suggest a roman slave gally?fast, fuel free, and appropriate. made from b.c. wood in b.c. shipyards.450 executives making 200,000 year?o.k. put them in shackles ,behind a bank of oars.225 per side that’s a good size boat.this boat is run as a people passanger only.for senior citizens.you know those people recently working to 67 for their pensions.thanks Stephen.guest seats for Christy ,david Hahn and ,hell, lets pull gordo back from his palace in London for the maiden voyage. I think elezibeth may could beat the drum to keep all these bluebloods in line.any body with me here?

  5. If BC Ferries was run as a true corporation, they would be looking at ways to increase revenue and reduce costs. The first cuts would be to management. The second would be to offer reduced rates for underutilized runs (Costal Fare Saver)to increase ridership. More riders equals more revenue. This is not rocket science, so what is the real agenda of BCF and the Liberals?

  6. Good article but I think we need to put more time and money into fixing the Ambulance service. People chose to ride the ferry but everybody needs a reliable Ambulance service. As a paramedic in surrey I see people waiting 30 minutes or more for a ambulance and it’s even worse in Northen BC. It’s a strain on over worked paramedics and the fire departments having to wait for a ambulance to clear them.

  7. Interesting article. I agree re big salaries. Frequency of service — why not reduce when some runs are less than half full? Free for seniors – I am 72 years old and can afford to pay. I am happy to pay but would like the less able to have the free ride. Does this sound like a means test? So what?

  8. Nice work, but nothing said about BCF’s debt and difficulties from the three big *Coastal* vessels, which are as big an albatross as the FastCats that sunk the NDP government.

    Three things we need to keep front and centre about these ships:

    1. They’re German-designed and -built for German-sized vehicles, meaning they hold considerably fewer North American-sized vehicles than planned, so aren’t the money-makers on busy days that they were supposed to be.

    2. BCF substituted a different engine than they’re designed for, which has led to problems running them, especially that the propellors cavitate – i.e. are out of the water – when the vessels aren’t fully loaded. Thus, they’re not in regular use, rather only brought out when they’ll run full.

    3. They’re in dock much of the time, taking up valuable berths needed for the working vessels, which have to wait and jockey for position, meaning fuel waste, delays, and some unnecessary overtime pay. The BCF fleet pays for their berths, another cost, but it’s cheaper than putting the *Coastal* ships into a Deas refit dock, although they’re also stored there sometimes.

    If the NDP were as rabid as routing out the Liberal government based on their stupid ferry purchases, this one’s been in their lap for more than three years. The public remains ignorant of the great *Coastal* fleet boondoggle because the mainstream press is protecting them.

    Thank you, Common Ground, for swimming upstream on this – a good piece. This further information may add more bite.

    • Some corrections are necessary.

      1. The Coastal class are designed to BCF requirements under a legal contract. The size requirement was for 370 automobile equivalent units (AEQ) which is BCF’s (not German) standard measurement. The ferries were physically measured during acceptance trials and found to meet 370 AEQ. Thus there is no undersize issue.

      2. The coastal class engines selected in the design process, Mak 6M32 type, are the same as are installed in the vessels. No substitutions occurred. Propeller immersion is independent of engine type, in any case. It is true the propellers are close to the surface because the props are large for maximum fuel economy. Propeller immersion is controlled with ballast, a common marine practice, so the props are at a suitable depth regardless of weight carried. Therefore prop immersion does not come into a decision to sail the vessel or not. The Coastal class is, in fact, in almost continuous use on Routes 1, 2 and 30.

      3. Three V class vessels were retired when the Coastal class arrived. Therefore there has been no net increase in the BCF fleet size and no change in the usage of berths. Vessels in operation do not have to wait for non-operational vessel to shift because there are sufficient berths to make this unnecessary. So no added cost, OT or fuel use can be attributed to the presence of the Coastal class.

      More than four years of operational service shows the Coastal class vessels are efficient and cost effective ferries. They consume about 25 percent less fuel than a Spirit class while carrying only slightly fewer vehicles (370 AEQ vs 390 AEQ). They also have much cleaner emission and almost no wake wash. They were delivered under budget and ahead of schedule. They are in daily use year round on the main routes between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Other ferry companies have studied the Coastal class design to learn from its energy efficient features.

      I am having trouble seeing any similarity to the fast ferries.

  9. Absolutely ridiculous. Beyond the pail! Wake up and smell the ocean. Its obvious that the entire system is fracked. Lets trim the fat and hold the government accountable for their mismanagement. The 1 Billion for Fast Cat Ferries that are scrap really tick me off!

  10. Agree with the idea that BC Ferries is bent not broken. Get on Board! Please note that your masthead reads January 2013.

    • If we had passenger ferries and everyone left their cars at home, the fare could be reduced and the tax subsidy as well.They could leave more frequently and at more convenient times.The Gulf Islands could rent scooters or provide ride sharing.I have heard of some people taking their behmoth RVs with them and having to wait a week to catch a return.


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