Editorial: B.C. needs new vision for ferries

The question of what to do with B.C. Ferries is one that never goes away, and now a new government has inherited the ever-present headache. Like everyone else on the Island, NDP MLAs while they were in opposition enthusiastically bashed the ferry corporation and the government that is its sole shareholder. Today, however, the NDP owns the successes and failures of the system that connects islands big and small to the rest of civilization.

Transportation Minister Claire Trevena says the government will begin a review of B.C. Ferries this fall. It makes sense to start with a clear picture of the ferry service before deciding its future.

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However, the NDP undercut that sensible resolution by promising, even before the review gets underway, to make some changes. It plans to reduce fares on minor routes next spring, freeze fares on major routes and restore the full seniors’ weekday discount.

The NDP promised during the election campaign to reduce fares on minor routes by 15 per cent, and allow seniors to again travel for free (passenger fare only, vehicles not included) from Monday to Thursday, except on holidays. Seniors have been paying half the adult fare since the full discount was eliminated by the former B.C. Liberal government in 2014.

While all three will certainly be popular with riders, they will come with a cost. In its platform, the NDP estimated it would take about $20 million a year, but former Liberal finance minister Mike de Jong said the party was dreaming.

The new government would like to see B.C. shipyards build new ferries, a bone of contention since the two most recent major projects went to foreign companies.

Building ferries, however, is a fraught topic for the NDP. When it was in power in the 1990s, it spent $462 million on innovative fast ferries that were built in B.C. to kick-start a home-grown industry.

They turned out to be so innovative that they didn’t work, and were eventually sold for scrap. Although promoting B.C.’s shipbuilding industry is good, the party cannot afford to be saddled with another colossal white elephant.

The fast ferries were one of the factors that led Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government to turn B.C. Ferries into a strange form of a private corporation. If the Liberals hoped the new structure would insulate them from complaints about the service, they were mistaken. They still got blamed, not least because they kept poking their fingers into big decisions.

Will the review include recommendations to fold Ferries back into government? It’s an option that would find favour in some quarters, but it wouldn’t fix all the problems.

Costs keep increasing; major routes still subsidize smaller routes; small islands see ferries as their lifeline and fight reduced service or increased fares. And the perennial question remains: Is B.C. Ferries an integral part of the highway system or a separate service?

The government will have to address all those issues in the midst of a year when the ferries are carrying record amounts of traffic. The corporation carried 2.2 million vehicles from April to June, the highest number in its history. The 5.6 million passengers in that period was the highest in 20 years.

Passenger traffic was up 3.8 per cent over the same period last year, while vehicle traffic increased 4.4 per cent.

Those numbers create their own headaches, with three-sailing waits becoming common this summer, and residents of smaller islands saying their ferries are jammed to capacity.

The NDP government’s review should create a vision for the future and concrete plans for improvement.

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