Les Leyne: All hands on deck for the Nanaimo ferry dream

Les Leyne mugshot genericAs surely as the tide comes in, the first thing that happens after an election call in Nanaimo is that people start talking again about a passenger-only ferry to Vancouver.

The idea is politically irresistible, and has been for decades. A quick, easy, cheap ride from Nanaimo Harbour directly to downtown Vancouver. What’s not to love?

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So some of the candidates for the Jan. 30 byelection have touted the concept, following a tradition of climbing aboard the bandwagon that develops every time a federal, provincial or local election is called.

The problem is that executing the popular vision of regular high-speed runs across the strait is a lot harder than it sounds. For all the political enthusiasm, it takes tens of millions of dollars to realize. And although the city has considered some subsidization, no government has ever reached the point of cutting a substantial cheque to make it happen.

That’s mostly because there is no policy case for taxpayers buying into the venture. The government’s transportation obligations are met by B.C. Ferries.

B.C. Ferries is free under the terms of its contract to start a passenger-only run. An independent review of the corporation five years ago urged it to consider the idea. But it has never done so, out of concern it would just cannibalize its profits on the existing car-carrying route.

So as surely as the tide goes out, once the election is over, the cheerleading fades and the wait continues for investors with millions of dollars — not just enthusiasm — to show up.

A Nanaimo-Vancouver passenger ferry is the Holy Grail of mid-Island politics. The B.C. Liberals even put it in their last desperate throne speech in 2017. It’s a never-ending quest. The journey overshadows the destination.

It has been realized a few times over the past 50 years, but the ventures all failed in short order.

In February 1969, the Pacific Hovercraft started service on the run and the sky appeared to be the limit. Officials were so confident about the 35-passenger vessel’s performance, there was talk of expanding to Victoria and the Gulf Islands. The 40-minute run cost $7. A news clipping reported that the crew included a pilot and a stewardess in white boots and a miniskirt.

It lasted a few months, then halted on a permitting issue and went bankrupt later.

Twenty-one years later, a Norwegian outfit arrived on the B.C. coast with ambitious plans. It created Royal Sealink Express and started on the Nanaimo run and a Victoria-Vancouver one as well.

It gave up after 10 months of low ridership. Running into a B.C. ferry in the first few weeks of operation didn’t help.

A decade later, another attempt was made as a syndicate of Island and Vancouver investors pooled their money and bought a catamaran from the Philippines to start sailing the route.

It lasted three years before abruptly shutting down after an engine failure that turned into a financial disaster and led to bankruptcy.

In the interim between Royal Sealink and HarbourLynx, the NDP government tried its hand at using giant car-carrying catamarans on the existing B.C. Ferries route. The Fastcat fiasco eventually cost almost half a billion dollars before the three new vessels were permanently docked.

The latest effort is a project of Island Ferry Services, made up of local promoters. It has the same vision as the previous ones, but it has spent more than five years developing the proposal and the ship has not yet sailed.

That hasn’t stopped Liberal Tony Harris and New Democrat Sheila Malcolmson from backing the concept, despite the overall dismal history behind the idea.

The passenger-only ferry is the maritime equivalent of the Island Corridor Foundation. It’s an exciting concept that looks great on paper, but has repeatedly foundered in the execution.

Political support for the project is great. But it looks as if a big, ongoing subsidy to cover years of losses during the start-up is what’s needed to see it through.

Finagling that kind of money out of assorted governments is where the campaign enthusiasm for the idea starts to wane.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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