Quadra and Cortes Islanders tired of ferry waits are calling for priority boarding for residents as the summer tourist season heats up.
Sailing waits have surged as the province relaxes restrictions on non-essential travel as part of its COVID-19 reopening plan.
Quadra Island resident Sarah Johnston says the return of two-sailing wait-times means the 20-minute crossing to Campbell River can take four hours or more for essential goods or medical appointments.
“It’s crazy,” Johnston said of the ferry traffic that regularly spills out of the parking lot and holding lanes, and up the hill from the terminal into Quadra’s roadways.
“If this is what we’re seeing in a summer with travel restrictions, imagine what it will be like in the future.”
Neighbouring Cortes Island residents negotiating a two-ferry journey wait even longer.
For ferry-dependent communities such as Quadra and Cortes, off the Island’s northeast coast, and a score of other coastal communities, ferries provide a lifeline to work, school or medical appointments.
Johnston said she typically tries to avoid peak hours, but some busy sailings are unavoidable, particularly if medical appointments fall during peak travelling periods.
She wants B.C. Ferries to offer island residents preferred boarding currently allowed under an emergency ministerial order in place as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
Johnston has asked about the priority boarding option at the ticket booth in Campbell River on several occasions. Attendants provided a variety of explanations for why it wasn’t being offered, such as inadequate staffing levels and logistical issues, such as insufficient holding areas in smaller terminals, Johnston said.
“I don’t see why it’s that big an issue,” she said, adding that preferred boarding measures wouldn’t have to be for every sailing.
She’d like to see a “get out of jail free” pass issued to residents on a once-weekly basis for essential or unavoidable travel. “I’m sure part of the resistance is, if they did it under the order and it succeeded, what reason would they have not to continue into the future?”
B.C. Ferries spokeswoman Deborah Marshall confirmed that residents and essential goods and workers are temporarily being given priority on sailings during the state of emergency due to the pandemic.
“It wasn’t an issue in the beginning of the pandemic, because our traffic had completely fallen off,” Marshall said via email. “Now that traffic is coming back and the province has lifted ‘non-essential’ travel restrictions, it is becoming an issue on many routes.”
But Marshall did not clarify why priority boarding wasn’t being offered to Discovery Island residents, as it has been on other routes, such as ones on the Sunshine Coast.
The B.C. Ferries website says customers will be asked at check-in if they qualify for priority boarding. The website also recommends people make reservations if they want to ensure priority on a specific sailing.
However, reservations aren’t available on smaller routes serving Quadra and Cortes islands and other island communities.
Quadra Island regional director Jim Abram said it’s clear islanders should be getting preferential boarding as long as the state of emergency continues. “We have really good people working at the [ferry] booth, and they are always careful about loading properly,” he said. “They are very creative and can probably find ways to hold [vehicles].”
Priority boarding is available for those with medical emergencies, and Cortes residents already get preferential boarding to Campbell River twice a week on a morning sailing, Abram noted, adding it should be possible to make similar arrangements for Quadra residents.
High-season traffic makes it difficult for residents to get to work, appointments or attend business, he added.
“It is almost impossible to use the ferry system when it is completely clogged with non-residents,” Abram said, noting the current focus on staycations has brought more and larger vehicles with campers, boats and RVs to the island. “We have accommodated and welcomed tourists, and we still do, but the situation just happens to have changed … we are in a worldwide pandemic.”
Noba Anderson, Cortes Island regional director, said many islanders have been requesting priority boarding for years. “We’ve always been told [by B.C. Ferries that] a customer is a customer is a customer,” Anderson said.
“It would be a very interesting trial to see if they can do it, and if they can, it would be important to have a more in-depth conversation about whether it can be implemented moving forward.”
Not all residents agree with the notion of preferred boarding, however.
Quadra resident and retired B.C. Ferries captain John Arnold said everybody feels they have a justifiable reason to get on the ferry before someone else.
Yet everyone who chooses to live on the islands knows ferry waits in summer are an issue, he added. “[It’s like] someone building a treehouse and then demanding someone else supply the ladder.”
He suggested residents are best served by adapting practical measures, such as leaving an inexpensive car across the water and walking on board.
“I only go when I have to, consolidate errands as much as possible, and the number-one rule is to go and get back early,” said Arnold, who argues it would be a logistical nightmare for attendants at the smaller terminals to organize priority boarding.
Quadra resident Alan Atkinson was one of many travellers stranded in a long vehicle backup that snaked its way out of the Quathiaski Cove ferry terminal on Thursday.
But he still feels first-come, first-served is the fairest option. “We’re all paying the same taxes for the system,” said Atkinson, who noted he was heading to Campbell River to shop, but could have taken a less-crowded sailing.
“I don’t necessarily have to be here right now,” he said.
Transportation Minister and local MLA Claire Trevena said B.C. Ferries has to balance both commercial and public interests when making operational decisions. It also has to avoid pitting residents against tourists, especially given that many coastal economies are reliant on tourism, she added.
“We know coastal communities are reliant on B.C. Ferries,” she said. “We as a government are committed to system that serves B.C. residents, but that also includes every B.C. business.”