The province will consider building a bridge to Gabriola Island, after receiving hundreds of signatures from residents of the Gulf Island.
The Ministry of Transportation is launching a feasibility study this fall that will consider a fixed link between Gabriola and Vancouver Island that would replace existing ferry service.
The study will examine potential locations for a fixed link, provide cost estimates, as well as submit a cost comparison between a fixed link and the ferry service. It will not assess the level of public support.
“The signal we have received from Gabriola Island is significant: Almost 700 signatures from an approximate population of 4,000 is a pretty significant number,” Transportation Minister Todd Stone said.
“They would like the province to conduct a feasibility study so that the facts are on the table.”
The study is part of the province’s efforts to reduce upward pressure on coastal ferry fares, Stone said.
The ferry route between Nanaimo and Gabriola cost $10.9 million to operate in the last fiscal year, while revenue collected through fares was about $5 million, he said. After factoring in taxpayer contributions and federal subsidies, the net loss was about $1.6 million.
The province will hire an independent consultant for the study, which will cost about $200,000. It will be made public when in spring 2015.
The petition, circulated by the Gabriola Bridge Society, recommends two two-lane bridges, measuring a total of 150 to 180 metres. They would run between Gabriola Island and Mudge Island, and from Mudge Island to Joan Point in Nanaimo.
The bridges would improve emergency access to the Nanaimo Regional Hospital, make it cheaper for visitors to travel to the island and provide opportunities for Gabriola youth to work and study in Nanaimo without moving off the island, the petition says.
“We feel great — this is terrific news,” said Michael Zane, one of the society’s founders. Rising B.C. Ferries fares and cuts to service are discouraging newcomers to the island and economic activity, he said. The Gabriola Island ferry was among 10 minor routes to have its sailings reduced last November.
“Inadvertently, we have become a gated community,” Zane said. “This island is much too precious to be shared by only a few local residents.”
Zane said he believes it will save the government money in the long run. “At certain times, in winter, [ferry] ridership can be very low with only one or two individuals riding back and forth. I myself don’t feel that’s fair to taxpayers,” he said.
Not everyone agrees. The Islands Trust, a federation of local governments serving the Islands in the Salish Sea, has a policy against bridges.
“We’re islanders. Bridges don’t make islands,” said David Graham, chairman of the Gabriola Island Local Trust Committee.
The official community plans of both Gabriola and Mudge, which include the Islands Trust policy against bridges, are approved by the province.
Sheila Malcolmson, chairwoman of the Islands Trust Council, said she was shocked to receive an announcement of the feasibility study, when the Islands Trust — which consists of elected officials charged with representing their constituents — was not consulted. “There is an eroding of some of the relationship that’s really important between local government and the province.”
Stone said the feasibility is simply about gathering the facts.
“This process is strictly about determining both the technical and financial feasibility of a fixed link,” he said. “Once made public, we’ll then wait for the residents of Gabriola and stakeholders to review that information and discuss the issue locally before committing to further steps.”