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Les Leyne: UBCM call for ferry changes a long shot

First, there was the out-of-left-field announcement last week that the government will study the feasibility of building a bridge to Gabriola Island from the Nanaimo region.

Les Leyne mugshot genericFirst, there was the out-of-left-field announcement last week that the government will study the feasibility of building a bridge to Gabriola Island from the Nanaimo region.

It’s in response to a petition signed by about 600 people, which might potentially become a record for the largest spending project with the smallest impetus.

Governments routinely ignore petitions signed by tens of thousands of people. All of a sudden, 15 per cent of Gabriola’s 4,000 souls sign one asking for a bridge and before you know it, a study is promised and will be underway this fall.

Then on Monday, B.C. Ferries announced it will convert the two biggest ships in the fleet to natural gas. It’s less dramatic, but just as major. It will take three years to convert the two Spirits, in order to save $9 million a year on the corporation’s diesel bill.

That’s two high-visibility conversation-starters in the space of a few days to do with ferries. Both ideas are obviously about saving money over the long haul. And both of them likely have merit. But there’s a strong impression the timing has something to do with deflecting some of the attention away from the showdown about the ferry system coming this week at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention.

Coastal communities spent months laying the groundwork for the case they will start making today at a workshop. They enlisted the support of local governments all over B.C., and there’s not much doubt their demand for fare rollback and a rethink of the system — up for debate today — will be endorsed.

But that hasn’t stopped Transportation Minister Todd Stone from trying to dismantle the case. The UBCM’s case is based on a socio-economic impact analysis of B.C. Ferries — discussed here and elsewhere last week. It concluded that high fares are suppressing the coastal economy and the high fares can be blamed on B.C. Liberal policies.

The UBCM resolution calls on Stone to cancel the service cuts and the last fare hike, rethink the whole approach and declare the system a part of the highway system (meaning boost the subsidy by millions).

In essence, the municipal leaders are telling Stone: “You’re doing it all wrong.”

The minister must have turned loose every analyst in his ministry on the report. Because within days of getting it, he sent UBCM president Rhona Martin a four-page letter detailing the shortcomings of the “unfortunate,” “disappointing,” “unsubstantiated” and “sensational” document.

He said it blames fare hikes for the critical ridership drop, but doesn’t take into account the economic meltdown, the Canadian dollar, new passport requirements, aging population and increased fuel prices.

Stone said the estimate of lost traffic due to fare increases is unrealistic and inconsistent with the fact that other ferry systems, such as Washington state’s, also saw traffic drop.

The estimated 31 million fewer passengers travelling over the past 10 years is overstated, he said. And the resulting $2.3-billion hit to the economy is overstated as well.

Stone says taxpayer contribution to the ferries has been hiked 70 per cent over the last 10 years. He said the UBCM resolution doesn’t suggest any other source of funding and “expects the taxpayer to make up the entire financial gap … . That would be irresponsible and would not be a sustainable approach.”

He closed off by making his hurt feelings known: “I am disappointed that UBCM has not taken a leadership role … . This kind of analysis is unproductive and does not address the key issues.”

His parting shot was an invitation to local governments to start contributing funding, a path none are interested in taking.

Stone acknowledged at one point “there is a link between fares and traffic levels.” That was the only point of agreement. The government is going to stand pat with fare hikes and route cuts and pursue radical new approaches such as fuel changes, bridges and cable ferries to cut costs. Local leaders want a rollback and a rethink. Based on the track record — eight UBCM resolutions in the past decade asking for ferry changes have been more or less ignored — it’s a long shot that the call will prompt much change.