The needs and wishes of Islanders and other BC Ferries (BCF) users may soon be left in the wake of an ever-diminishing service, warns Gabriola Ferry Advisory Committee (FAC) Chair John Hodgkins.
And that’s despite a promise to “consult” ferry users before making changes, Hodgkins said in a Tuesday press release.
In May, Hodgkins said, the Ministry of Transportation promised “… significant adjustments to service levels, and discussions with communities about trade-offs among service adjustments, fare increases, and potential community contributions”. However, Hodgkins said, an early July contract between BCF and the Province set out “the ‘guiding principles’ that would be used as the basis for identifying the service adjustments. It was pretty clear then, that the axe could fall just about anywhere – major routes (to and from the mainland) or the minor routes to the islands.”
“Those ‘guiding principles’ left little doubt that the government intends to target those routes and sailings that are not well used,” Hodgkins said. He said that includes routes that “report annual capacity utilisation levels below 55 per cent” – which he said means just about all of the minor routes – and those that report round trip utilisation levels of “below 20 per cent either seasonally or annually”.
To put that in perspective, Hodgkins said the Quinsam – the ferry that services Gabriola Island – “was reported to have achieved 45.1 per cent utilisation in the year to March, 2012”. He said at the height of the 2011 summer season “about 19 per cent of round trip sailings operated at less than 20 per cent of capacity – usually the first sailing of the day and in the late evenings. In winter, this rises to around a third of all round-trip sailings.”
In August “Vancouver-based Kirk and Company were appointed to conduct the public consultation,” Hodgkins said. But while the Province said it would liaise with a number of stakeholders, including the BC Ferry Commissioner, local governments, First Nations, FACs, and affected communities, there were actually “two months of silence. Until last week, when the Province and their consultants met with the chairs of the 13 coastal regional districts in a ‘pre-consultation’ session to seek their reaction to the draft consultation plans. Few details emerged. But one thing seems clear; the government doesn’t seem ready or willing to tell local communities yet about which of our ferry services are at risk.”
Regional district and FAC chairs are all telling the Province that the consultation process needs work, Hodgkins said. He said Strathcona Regional District board Chair Jim Abram believes “the consultation as proposed would be a dismal failure”, while Colin Palmer, chair of the Sunshine Coast Regional District said: “If the public are going to give you valid input during the consultation process, we believe considerably more work is necessary to refine the consultation process. To be specific, the background information intended for the public to understand the challenges facing the coastal ferry service is incomplete.”
Hodgkins said the FAC chairs have also been told: “The Province wants this consultation to guide the strategy – but without going into detail about how the service cuts might affect individual communities. ‘That comes later’ we’re told, ‘once we have seen the consultant’s report’. But will islanders be consulted again before the cuts (sorry, ‘service adjustments’) are announced? Who knows?”
“What we do know,” said Hodgkins, “is that the consultants are due to report back in February – and that the government’s contract with BC Ferries says that the plans need to be in place by June 30 next year, otherwise the Ferry Commissioner can impose either service cuts or more fare increases – with minimal notice to the public. And what happens between February and June? An election.”
Hodgkins said that there is “still no date for the public consultation here on Gabriola”.
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