Les Leyne: UBCM unlikely to alter Ferries’ course

Les Leyne mugshot genericPremier Christy Clark empathized with frustrated leaders of ferry-dependent communities Wednesday, but it was more to make up for her sulky transportation minister than to entertain ideas of a course change.

Municipal leaders commissioned an exhaustive study showing all the harm high fares are doing to the coastal economy, but Transportation Minister Todd Stone was unaccountably dismissive of the work.

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He could have just received it and put it under consideration. Instead, he lambasted most of the findings and wrote a four-page reply full of hurt feelings and recriminations, even while back-handedly agreeing that high fares are a problem. If his letter was a bid to make municipal delegates think twice about disagreeing with the government’s ferry policy, it didn’t work.

The Union of B.C. Municipalities voted unanimously on a centre-stage resolution demanding a rethink of that policy, and a rollback of the service cuts and fare hikes. The resolution also pushes for considering the ferries as part of the highway system, which would significantly increase the provincial subsidy of the system.

It was a pretty solid show of support for ferry users, given that delegates from the Interior were essentially voting to have a share of their constituents’ tax dollars devoted to a service most of them scarcely ever use.

But local coastal leaders spent a year laying the groundwork for the big push this week, including a big public workshop on the ferry dilemma at the UBCM convention on Tuesday, and all the work paid off. They seem to have made the case convincingly that, as one said, a depressed coastal-transportation system benefits no one in B.C.

Clark agreed to a 15-minute meeting with some of them after the unanimous vote. But it looks as if it was a lot more about making up for Stone’s behaviour than giving any impression the resolution is going to change her government’s mind. The only public upshot from the session, which stretched into 45 minutes, was an agreement to keep the dialogue going.

She got mixed reviews from two people who were in the room.

Islands Trust chairwoman Sheila Malcolmson said: “This is the third time I’ve met with this premier [on ferries] … I like her attitude generally around ferries, that she’s been able to concede we have a problem.

“But this is the third time we heard that commitment to dialogue and I can’t say we’ve moved as far as I’d hoped after that first meeting.”

Malcolmson said earlier meetings gave her cause for hope, because she left thinking the government understands the tipping point has been passed on fare hikes, and they are hurting the coastal communities.

But given “surprise announcements” and disappointing forms of further consultation, she said “it didn’t cheer me quite as much this year to hear what we heard a year ago from the premier.”

Campbell River Coun. Claire Moglove was slightly more optimistic, saying she thought Clark was really listening and the meeting was a good first step in the wake of what she said was a major convention resolution.

“Even though there’s a difference of views on a solution, it was a good first meeting,” said Moglove.

They seem to have kept it cordial by not getting too deep into the UBCM analysis, which said government policies have contributed to driving down ridership by 19 per cent over a decade, which has cost $2.3 billion in foregone GDP growth.

(When they touched on it briefly, Malcolmson noted: “There was a bit of what I would call eye-rolling from the provincial desk.”)

She said their case was simply: “We asked you to do a study on the economic impact of service cuts … you didn’t do it, the UBCM took leadership. If you think our numbers are wrong, then show us your numbers or do your own study. We’d really welcome it.”

No matter how much more dialogue there is, the government is unlikely to backtrack on last fall’s service cuts. There’s a slightly better chance the scheduled fare hike next spring could be adjusted a little.

As for rethinking the whole approach to ferries, it’s been underway — with increasing desperation — for the last few years.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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