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November 2013: Gambling on the future of BC Ferries

November 25, 2013

Quinsam

BC Ferries has spoken. On Nov. 18, the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MoTI) released its proposal to meet targets to reduce costs for running the province’s coastal ferry services by $18.9 million dollars by 2016. Nearly 75 per cent of this cost-cutting is to be achieved by reducing services to ferry-dependent coastal communities.

On Gabriola this will mean a 14.5 per cent service reduction, with the cancellation of the last two round trip services of the day and of the first round trip service on Saturdays and Sundays. MoTI estimates that cancellation of these 834 round trip sailings will save BC Ferries (BCF) $800,000 towards the 2016 target.

For Islands Trust trustees and members of Ferry Advisory Committees, who thought they were in some sort of consultation process with MoTI and BC Ferries, the proposals came as a shock.

Only a few weeks ago, Islands Trust Chair Sheila Malcolmson met with MoTI Minister Todd Stone’s parliamentary secretary Jordan Sturdy to discuss fare affordability. (This followed a September discussion with Premier Christy Clark, who agreed ferry fares had “gone beyond the tipping point” and welcomed ideas to address the problem.) According to Malcolmson, “At no point in my meeting was there any discussion of service reduction.”

Invitation

Shortly before the Nov. 18 BCF announcement, Malcolmson received an invitation, along with all regional district chairs, to a Nov. 19 meeting with Kevin Richter, Assistant Deputy Minister, Infrastructure Department of MoTI.

The invitation informed the Chairs that “the Province will be commencing community engagement meetings on Nov. 20, 2013, as part of a province-wide effort to seek input on planned changes to service levels and other strategies to ensure the sustainability of coastal ferry services”.

The invitation continued: “We acknowledge and value the contributions and insights of the Regional District Chairs.  Given the Chairs’ strong interest in and commitment to  the coastal ferry system, I wish to invite you to an engagement meeting with staff from the Ministry and BC Ferries to discuss the reductions and other topics”.

No attempt was made by Richter to make invitees aware that the day before the proposed meeting, MoTI would be releasing its planned service cuts to Gulf and Northern Island ferry services, Malcolmson said. They learned about the proposed cuts from the media.

The meeting was somewhat heated, she said.

As Malcolmson pointed out to the assistant deputy minister, one of the three objectives listed in the terms of reference for the ferry consultation was to engage citizens and local governments in areas that will be impacted by changes to ferry service.

No engagement

“There has never been any engagement with local government about cuts to vital ferry services,” said Malcolmson. “We were presented with a fait accompli. And then informed that staff from the Ministry and BCF would be coming to Gabriola on Dec. 10 for an after-the-fact open house”.

Malcolmson, who represents Gabriola and the other Gulf Islands, said: “The proposals are deeply disappointing. Fares keep going up and up with no improvement to services. Now services are being reduced, which would be more palatable if there was any likelihood this might lead to fare reductions, but it won’t.”

Equally unimpressed by this “consultation process” is John Hodgkins, chair of the Gabriola Ferry Advisory Committee (FAC). Hodgkins, along with other FAC chairs, was also invited to a postscript meeting with MoTI staff the day after the proposed service reductions were announced.

After hearing about proposed cuts, Hodgkins said, “FAC Chairs hoped to learn more about the socio-economic research that underpinned the proposals. There didn’t seem to be any. The driving force behind the plan remains the cost – and service – cutting. … There has been no serious attempt to measure the impact these cuts will have on residents, families and businesses in coastal communities.”

FAC members challenged that decision, Hodgkins said.

“When we raised the issue of the money-losing Duke Point terminal, we were told in no uncertain terms that any decisions about major routes was for another, later discussion,” said Hodgkins. In the last financial year, Duke Point operated at a $25 million loss.

Impacts on Gabriolans

Of the last two Gabriola sailings of the day, which BC Ferries recommends cancelling, Hodgkins says, “There’s no doubt these sailings are among the quietest, but has any consideration been given to the impact on shift workers, students and businesses that rely on these sailings? It appears not.”

The decision will also have negative impacts on parents of children whose sports events in Nanaimo run later than 9:15 pm or anyone who enjoys going to movies, concerts, or the theatre off-island.

There is also the impact the cuts will have on the BC Ambulance Service, Hodgkins said.

“Right now, the ambulance can take patients off the island right up to 11 pm,” said Hodgkins. “In future, emergency calls after 9 pm will have to be dealt with on island, with patients needing hospital treatment facing a rough boat ride or, for the most serious, helicopter evacuation.” There are major cost implications Hodgkins said.

Islanders have also raised concerns about power failures, other islanders note. With late-sailing cancellations, BC Hydro crews will have two hours less to work on repairs. And if the power goes out after 9 pm on a Friday or Saturday night, it will be impossible for a BC Hydro crew to even start working on the problem for nearly 12 hours.

Although reductions in services are a primary concern to Gulf Islanders, two other MoTI proposals to save and make money have received province-wide attention – and condemnation.

April Fool’s for seniors

Decades ago it was decided that the people whose tax dollars had helped build up the services offered by BC Ferries should be rewarded with free travel on weekdays.

As of April 1, 2014 that will end MoTI says. Instead of free travel on weekdays, pensioners will be offered a “discount” of 50 per cent on weekday travel. MoTI claims this will save approximately $6 million per year which “will be redirected to support general fares”.

According to Kirk Handrahan, executive director of the marine branch of MoTI, in the last financial year, the Province paid BC Ferries $15 million to cover the cost of free travel for seniors. The Province will continue to reimburse BC Ferries the full cost of senior travel, while seniors themselves will be expected to pay 50 per cent of the passenger ticket price.

MoTI itself predicts that at least 10 per cent of the 1.5 million BC seniors currently travelling for free are likely to stop travelling on the ferries because of the changes. What isn’t clear to anyone – BC Ferries and MoTI included – is the drop in car fare income likely to result from reduced senior travel.

The move has been widely denounced by seniors support groups.

Dave Sinclair, president of BC Seniors Living Association told Sun Media: “I’m very disappointed in this decision because I think again the most vulnerable people in our communities have been targeted”. Most seniors, he said, are “on a fixed income and this is going to impact them considerably. A lot of them travel back and forth to visit family and grandchildren.”

Whether or not the revocation of free travel for seniors will ultimately raise BC Ferries revenue remains to be seen.

Win/lose proposal

In addition to saving money by cutting services to minor routes and ending free travel for seniors, BC Ferries proposes to increase revenues by introducing slot machines on Lower Mainland to Victoria crossings.

This announcement comes one month after Dr Perry Kendall, the Provincial Health Officer, issued: “Lower the Stakes: A Public Health Approach to Gambling in British Columbia”, which warns that the number of “problem” gamblers (those for whom gambling borders on or has become an addiction) in BC doubled over a five year period to more than 30,000.

Report co-author, Dr. Gerald Thomas of the BC Centre of Addictions Research, warns that electric gambling machines are designed to promote riskier gambling behaviour. At the time of the report’s release, he told CBC: “One of the inducements in these high-risk machines is near misses. You have three little things turning there, and all of a sudden it will show you that you’ve got two out of the three. Those kinds of inducements are designed to keep people at these machines and playing.”

One of the report’s recommendations was to reduce the number and availability of slot machines, which in the view of the authors presents a public health risk.

Following the Nov. 18 BC Ferries announcement, Dr. Thomas told the Vancouver Sun there had been little official government response to the study, adding “and here we see another example of them doing exactly what we warned them to be careful about”.

Gabriola reaction

Gabriola’s Facebook community erupted within minutes of the service cut announcement. There were early comments from shift workers, who rely on the late ferries, wondering whether they were supposed to give up their job in Nanaimo or their home on Gabriola.

Many voiced the need for the sort of water taxi service other Gulf Islands already have to assist with late night travel.

It was also an opportunity for bridge proponents to renew their calls for a permanent link to Nanaimo.

Given the fare increases Gabriolans have endured over the years and the cuts to services we now face (see Compare and contrast this edition), some have asked if BC Ferries is deliberately attempting to force the island into a land link.

Asked to respond to the renewed calls for a bridge, Sheila Malcolmson said: “I get the frustration. I really do. However, talk about bridges or setting up our own ferry service takes away from the focus we need to put on the province to return the public ferry service to being an affordable service to coastal communities”.

“There have been so many proposals to bridge Gabriola and Mudge in order to move Mainland travellers to Vancouver Island. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that any bridge will ever be built simply for the convenience of Gabriolans.”

Next Steps

MoTI and BC Ferries representatives will be on Gabriola, at the Haven, for a public meeting on Dec. 10, from 5-8 pm, with an open house till 6 pm followed by  a question and answer session.

On Friday morning the Local Trust Committee’s Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC) met to set tasks for responding MoTI and BC Ferries next month.

It was agreed to establish an online survey on the Ferry Advisory Committee website (gabriolafac.com) to allow Gabriolans to share the impacts the proposed service cuts will have on them, their families, and their work.

After the meeting, Hodgkins told The Shingle: “It’s crucial that we are able to fully document and quantify the social and economic impacts these cuts will have on the community. After one meeting it is clear to us that these will far outweigh any cash benefits to BC Ferries.”

Malcolmson, who also attended the meeting, said: “I’m mad that the BC government didn’t do this important work themselves before making and announcing their plans. And I’m hugely grateful to the community volunteers who are undertaking the research.”

(c) The Flying Shingle

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