West Shore ferry resurfaces with heavy subsidies forecast

The feasibility of a proposed commuter ferry between Royal Bay in Colwood and downtown Victoria is being questioned by an operator who shut down a marine shuttle in April.

A report released Monday by the West Shore Chamber of Commerce states that a survey of 1,800 respondents found strong support for a commuter ferry to help ease traffic congestion on the Colwood Crawl.

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But the gulf between people signing a petition for a ferry and a viable operation is huge, said Barry Hobbis, vice-president of operations of the Victoria Harbour Ferry Co., which pulled the plug on a passenger ferry service between the West Shore and CFB Esquimalt after trying it for a year.

“It’s nice to go out there and do a survey and survey three per cent of the population of the West Shore, but in the end what it comes down to in terms of reality is you’re talking tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars for two vessels. Probably they would have to be purpose-built because those are very, very rough waters out there,” Hobbis said Monday. “And the infrastructure is going to cost you as much as the vessels. Then you have to find spots for 700 or so cars.”

The bottom line is any such ferry would have to be supported by all levels of government and heavily subsidized, Hobbis said.

“Nobody in their right mind is going to invest the tens of millions of dollars to make it work at $10 one way and expect that they’re going to get their money back soon. Ten dollars [a ride]. I don’t think that would pay for fuel,” Hobbis said.

Bringing a new ferry into the Inner Harbour from Royal Bay isn’t practical because the five-knot speed limit in the harbour would add 20 minutes to a crossing, he said. That would suggest docking at Ogden Point, he said, which isn’t the most convenient for many commuters.

Victoria Harbour Ferry introduced its Baseline Ferry Service between Colwood and CFB Esquimalt in 2012, charging $5 for a return trip, to fill a gap left when the military cancelled its free Blue Boat service that, for 55 years, carried 400 to 600 people a day across Esquimalt Harbour.

But it cancelled the service a year later in April of this year due to poor ridership. “The ridership just wasn’t there,” Hobbis said. “When it was free [operated by the military] hundreds of people were there. But as soon as it went to $2.50, they weren’t there.”

Map of proposed route for West Shore ferry

Dan Spinner, chief executive officer of the West Shore Chamber, said a passenger ferry would not solve all transportation’s issues but “would help.”

“It’s a trial balloon and we want to see whether there is strong interest.”

Infrastructure and vessels would cost $26 million, said Jonathan Calderwood, Royal Roads MBA student, who spent 10 months on the study. This would include $12 million for a West Shore dock and building and $7 million to buy two used ferries, with capacity for 350 passengers each. The vessels would be purchased off-shore and refitted in Canada.

The two ferries would make a total of 14 crossings daily, handling 47,981 commuters in 2014, the study said. Ridership would build as the West Shore grows, something the report anticipates based on Capital Regional District studies.

The study concluded that 70 per cent of working commuters living in the West Shore would make 4.7 return trips weekly. It also said that 96 per cent of car and bus commuters would take the ferry instead of the bus.

The West Shore has 10,705 working commuters heading into the city, while Victoria sees 1,900 heading to the West Shore for work, Calderwood said. Those numbers do not include shoppers or students. Commuters would pay a maximum of $10.44 for a single return ticket and $81 for a monthly pass. The ferry ride would take 22 to 24 minutes, Calderwood said.

Also, a study would be needed to determine how sea conditions would affect service, Spinner said.

The proposal is in its early stages. Details such as who would participate and who would pay are still undetermined. Also unknown is where a ferry would dock in the city.

Management possibilities include a partnership between West Shore communities, core Victoria communities and the province or B.C. Transit alone, or a public-private partnership.

An operating subsidy of $2.6 million a year would initially be required, Calderwood said. The Chamber plans to approach new B.C. Transportation Minister Todd Stone, urging the creation of Southern Vancouver Island Transportation Authority, which would plan for all types of transportation, Spinner said.

Meribeth Burton, B.C. Transit spokeswoman, said the issue for Transit is the feasibility of a ferry service. “The idea has been around for a long, long time ... not sure that we agree with the numbers that are being quoted in the survey.”

Transit is willing to work with anyone who is looking at a solution and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all, she said. “At the same time, B.C. Transit is really reliable in poor weather ... not sure that could be said about ferries.”

Only 14 per cent of passengers from the West Shore ride the bus all the way downtown, she said. “The bulk of our ridership gets off somewhere along the corridor.”

Transit has heard from local municipalities that “they want us to take incremental steps to build ridership,” Burton said.

On Thursday, B.C. Transit staff will go to its commission with recommendations for transit-priority measures for bus-only lanes from Uptown to downtown, and queue-jumper lanes to help move traffic more quickly on the Old Island Highway in Colwood and McKenzie Avenue in peak hours. (Queue-jumper lanes refer to when a bus having the right of way ahead of waiting traffic when pulling away from a stop).

It’s unclear how and when the mixed-use Royal Bay will be developed. A review of the existing master plan is underway, said spokeswoman Gwen-Ann Chittenden. “Our current focus is on the land we control, which doesn’t include the foreshore land. The Royal Bay master plan presently provides for a mixed-use residential and commercial development and we are looking toward our advisers to provide new ideas on what can be done to further enhance the value of this community.”

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