Editorial: Show leadership on ferry service

Transportation Minister Todd Stone was clearly unhappy with the Union of B.C. Municipalities’ report on the socioeconomic impact of ferry increases on Island and coastal communities.

“I am disappointed that UBCM has not taken a leadership role in facilitating a dialogue to discuss creative solutions instead of focusing the discussion on the past and a theoretical perspective on what could or might have been,” he wrote to the organization. “This kind of analysis is unproductive and does not address the key issues that are facing British Columbians that live in coastal communities today.”

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His words might well be applied to his own response to the UBCM report.

The UBCM has repeatedly asked the government for a study on what higher ferry fares would do to affected communities, as well as calling for a long-term, comprehensive ferry strategy drawn up in consultation with affected areas. That didn’t happen, so the UBCM commissioned its own study.

The resulting 97-page report estimated that 31 million passengers in the last decade decided not to travel on the ferries because of the higher cost, resulting in a $2.3-billion drop in the province’s economic activity.

Stone didn’t have anything good to say about the report.

“It was irresponsible for UBCM to publicly release a document which outlines an unsubstantiated and sensational $2.3-billion impact on the provincial economy,” he wrote in his letter to UBCM president Rhona Martin.

When you have created a vacuum, you shouldn’t complain about what flows into it. Stone is correct about a lack of leadership on the issue, but his finger is pointing in the wrong direction — transportation is his portfolio. Instead of blasting the report, he should have said: “Let’s talk.”

The UBCM study is undoubtedly simplistic in pinning substantial economic decline on higher ferry fares, given global conditions and many other possible factors. On the other hand, it would be simplistic to think that raising fares will not cause deep and lasting harm to communities that depend heavily on ferries.

The municipalities’ report does not claim to have all the answers but “goes a long way to providing such information, and can serve as a first step toward dialogue and further analysis.”

That’s a request to sit down and talk, but too often, such requests go unheeded.

Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard is one of six authors of a UBCM report calling for a new fiscal partnership between municipalities and the province that would help towns and cities to fix major infrastructure such as roads and bridges. He said he was shocked that several requests to meet with Community, Sport and Cultural Development Minister Coralee Oakes during this week’s UBCM convention were ignored.

The province doesn’t have a miraculous pitcher of money to pour over every municipal concern. The money to build bridges and highways or operate ferries comes from the same source — the taxpayer.

But the province should see municipal governments as partners, not adversaries. When difficult decisions must be made, they are better implemented if they are worked out by all involved, rather than imposed from above.

Stone’s dismissive attitude toward the UBCM’s ferry service report is unhelpful, long on criticism and short on substance.

As Islands Trust chairwoman Sheila Malcolmson said at the UBCM meeting: “If you think our numbers are wrong, then show us your numbers or do your own study. We would welcome it.”

Regardless of the pretence that B.C. Ferries is a private corporation, it is a public service, part of the province’s transportation system. Stone could provide the leadership he says is lacking by working co-operatively with municipalities and regions in determining the course B.C. Ferries should take.

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