Grim ferry tales and a premier’s flip-flop



• Despite a rapidly declining customer base, the ongoing strategy of hiking prices is an ongoing business “death spiral,” rippling through and dragging down the economy across the province.

Ridership on the Gabriola ferry has plummeted. In February, vehicles were down 17% with 13% fewer passengers compared to 2013. Across BC Ferries, vehicle traffic was off 4% to 7% and 3% to 15% on other minor routes. That’s even before further fare increases this month. In contrast, Denmark’s ferry prices were reduced an average 9% and ridership increased 13% with revenues rising 3%, $20 million more than in 2012.

European tour operators have also been impacted by ferry cuts in BC; they’re furious that Stone replaced the Queen of Chilliwack (115 cars, 300 passengers|) with the Nimpkish that accommodates only 16 vehicles, including room for only four RVs. And during the nine-hour Discovery Coast sailing, tourists’ only food option is a vending machine.

At the BC Ferries protest in Victoria on March 11, Cowichan elder Ron George asked, “How does it feel to be treated like an Indian? To live in legislated poverty, kept in the dark where no one will listen? Get used to it. You can’t stop [with] gatherings and demonstrations like this.”

Among those not listening is Transportation Minister Todd Stone. He promised to look coastal communities “in the eye,” but then stayed in hallways, repeating his media mantra, “This government is making tough decisions to keep BC Ferries affordable and sustainable.”

Also a no-show was Premier Christy Clarke, similarly sequestered to avoid addressing the 1,500 citizens who travelled via school and charter buses, car pools and yes, ferries – within a day’s reach of the capital on Vancouver Island. Nevertheless, she stole the show as a “virtual premier” when a recording of an editorial she delivered as a CKNW talk show host in 2008 was played, a flip-flop of epic proportions and the rally highlight:

From Christy Clarke’s stint as a talk show host on CKNW radio:

“BC ferry fares have finally gotten so high that for every dollar they raise, it will actually garner less in revenue.

“Higher fares mean fewer passengers so the accountants will have to subtract paying customers from every new dollar. And at this rate, how long will it be before they abandon the routes where they don’t make any money? How long before the provincial government abandons its responsibility to provide a public service to many of the people who depend on ferries to travel or to ship their goods?

“Our transportation minister seems to have an insatiable appetite for funding highways, if they require blacktop, and he seems perfectly at peace with providing free ferries on inland lakes in BC, but he doesn’t seem to have the same affection for our maritime highway on the coast.

“Why don’t they say that they’re subsidizing people who live in Whistler by the massive expansion of the Sea to Sky Highway? I mean, I occasionally go up to Whistler; I suppose I benefit from that expansion of the highway, but the math they do suggests that only people who live at the end of one of these transportation routes are the people who are being subsidized. Why don’t they do that – apply the same math to the highways they build, then maintain, that they do to the ferry routes?

“Am I subsidizing people, wealthy people, who can afford a second home in Whistler?”

“Precisely,” said organizers from the Gulf Islands, Northern Vancouver Island, coastal outports and First Nations communities. “We can’t say it – or make our case – any better!” When asked about the tape, Clarke bolted from a press conference, nearby.

Speakers outside included federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May, Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin, Islands Trust chair Sheila Malcolmson, Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore, the chair of Metro Vancouver board as well as representatives from business, labour, community and the NDP caucus. Powell River–Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons delivered 2,200 petition signatures from his riding.

This year’s largest protest at the leg also featured songs by Juno award-winning Valdy and Gary Fjellgaard, the Kerplunks and others. The crowd brandished signs reading, “Now You’ve Pissed Off Grandma” and “Grim Ferry Tales,” but their call for a moratorium – until socio-economic impact studies (not undertaken by government) can be completed – fell on deaf ears.

Liberal ferry policy has united coastal communities around a common goal of scrapping the 2003 Coastal Ferry Act, which created what the British call a “quango,” a quasi-non-government organization. Blocks away at BC Ferries’ flashy headquarters, bloated management banked non-performance bonuses while conjuring up cruise-ship-like tourist contests. Returning home, protestors were greeted with boilerplate form letters from Minister Stone, their questions and comments ignored, and yet another BCFS telephone survey about the customer experience card by the Mustel group.

Cam Pirie of Walcan Seafood on Quadra Island spoke about his family’s 40 year-old seafood processing business. It employs 150, has a gross annual revenue of more than $30 million and spends $1.3 million every year on BC Ferries. It is contemplating using barges or relocating.

As Pirie noted, increases in rates have resulted in lost revenues “in the form of lost jobs, devalued property, displaced families and weakened businesses. This continues to cost the province far more money than that gained by raising fares – losses that affect all BC taxpayers.”

On March 15, for those who couldn’t afford ferry fares, local protests were staged along the coast, including Quadra where 100 people walked on the noon ferry to Campbell River, intending to rally and sail back as they have done previously. But this time K-9 Security was waiting on-board. RCMP were called as numerous head counts were conducted, including car passengers – who had nothing to do with the protest – told to leave the ferry for the parking lot, delaying the ferry for two sailings. ”Shoddy treatment” and “intimidation,” Quadra residents said in complaints to Stone and Clarke.

Fares have now increased, with more increases on the way. This month, cuts will be made in sailings but not in management or at Duke Point, which loses $25 million annually. Other communities are nervously awaiting further decisions from BC Ferries while their travel costs spiral beyond affordability, forcing them to make “tough decisions” about their options.

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