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Provincial election campaign highlights ferry issue

Coastal communities focus on impact to economies
Laura Walz

BC Ferries quickly became an election issue in the first week of the provincial campaign.

The New Democratic Party (NDP) promised not to proceed with planned fare hikes and to give the company $40 million over the next two years to help cover costs. It also committed to audit the company, including corporate salaries, to find ways to reduce costs and protect services.

The BC Liberals have committed to putting one-third of future liquefied natural gas revenues toward eliminating BC Ferries’ debt, up to $1 billion, freeing the corporation from annual debt-servicing costs.

BC Ferries’ financial situation is worse than most people believed, pointed out Colin Palmer, chair of Powell River Regional District and head of a group of regional district chairs who represent coastal communities. A new report by Gordon Wilson, a Powell River resident and former provincial politician who at one time was responsible for BC Ferries, documents the corporation’s operational and total debt, while pointing out it doesn’t include costs for vessel replacement. “My estimation is that this is a bigger financial fiasco than the fast cats,” Palmer said.

Wilson’s report, which focuses on fiscal fairness for coastal communities, explains why BC Ferries, a government-sanctioned monopoly, should be run with direct government control through the British Columbia Transportation Financing Authority (BCTFA). Wilson argues BC Ferries should be treated as a tolled portion of the highway, where the cost is shared equitably by all British Columbians. Currently, many ferries running in the BC Interior are free of charge.

Wilson’s report adds to the argument that the Coastal Ferry Act is flawed, Palmer said. “Now Gordon says it’s even more flawed than we ever thought,” he said.

Palmer also said Wilson has pointed out government can find the money to deal with the problem through the BCTFA. “We never knew that before,” he said. “We never knew where there was another source of money. We’re interested in that and why the government didn’t use that vehicle to handle the money.”

As well, it’s significant that Wilson couldn’t find any written documentation about why Interior ferries are free, Palmer said. “He’s trying to destroy this myth,” he said. “There’s no writing anywhere that says because of the Columbia River Treaty, the Interior ferries are free. He said that’s just not the case.”

Coastal communities will continue to challenge the government about why the Interior ferries are free, Palmer said. “It’s unfair, it’s inequitable. What’s the game being played there? And it has been played for years.”

An organization on Texada Island has taken up the issue as well. TAN (Texada Action Now) has produced bumper stickers that state “BC Ferries Sinking Coastal Communities” and is selling them for $6.

Chuck Childress, TAN president, said coastal communities are sending the message that BC Ferries is hurting the economy. “The only one that really denies it is BC Ferries,” he said. “It’s almost unanimous and every business sees it, everybody sees it.”

The message on the bumper sticker will hopefully be circulated around the province so residents in other areas understand the issue. “The message is, you’re in a real disadvantage in a ferry-dependent community for business unless you’re producing something that originates in your community and stays in your community,” Childress said.

Fare increases are the biggest part of the issue, Childress said, pointing out they have been compounded. “It’s four per cent, it’s another four per cent, another five per cent, but they’re on top of all of the other increases,” he said. “Somebody was telling us inflation is not a problem, but BC Ferries creates an inflationary problem in all coastal communities.”

Fares should be rolled back, Childress said, but at the minimum they should be frozen.

Meanwhile, Wilson said while the response from the NDP and Liberals wasn’t “too encouraging, at least they’re talking about it and at least now we have their attention.”

As the election campaign continues over the next couple of weeks, Wilson said, the issue will be raised at all-candidates meetings and various election forums in all coastal communities. “People really are fed up with it,” he said.

Interested readers who would like more information about TAN’s bumper stickers should email