Cortes Ferry Passengers Speak To MLA Trevena

On Friday February 28th at 2:30pm, over 40 Cortes residents gathered at Whaletown Community Hall for a meeting with Minister of Transportation Claire Trevena, to discuss the future of BC Ferries. Ms Trevena had travelled to Cortes Island to gather public input as part of Phase 2 of the Ministry’s “public engagement” project which began last Fall. (Article includes this link to an online survey for ferry users.)

Unist’ot’en Supporters Address Their MLA

During the first 20 minutes of the meeting, Ms Trevena heard comments from the public on a not entirely unrelated issue, the deployment of RCMP personnel in the forcible removal of protesters at the Unist’ot’en anti-pipeline encampment. Many members of the audience were in sympathy with both the purpose of the protest camp, and the sovereignty of the unceded First Nations land on which it was established.

Protesters waiting for Claire Trevana
Two of the protesters – Nancy Beach photo

Several audience members pressed Ms Trevena strongly for a statement; she chose not to speak either against or in favour of the RCMP deployment and the arrests. However, she did respectfully hear several heartfelt statements from the public regarding both the NDP’s pro-pipeline policy, and indigenous land rights. Two former NDP voters explained that they had switched to the Green Party because of their dissatisfaction with NDP’s policy.

Trevena’s Agenda

After the protest supporters had been heard (and thanked for their efforts by Regional Director Noba Anderson) the meeting returned to its advertised topic: what ferry-reliant community members on the coast of BC expect, or hope for, from the next two to four decades of BC Ferries service and policy. Ms Trevena opened the discussion by explaining the public engagement process and outlining four major issues that had emerged from Phase 1 meetings:

  1. efficient end-to-end travel: ideally, the ability to move from one location to another in BC seamlessly, with smooth transitions due to integrated schedules for ferry and other transport services.
  2. equitable and accessible service: ferry service that is both affordable in dollars, and accessible to people of varying physical abilities.
  3. responsive to climate change: how can BC Ferries respond meaningfully to climate change?
  4. reflecting the values of coastal communities: how can BCF service be compatible with the values of local communities?

The Hon. Claire Trevena (L) listens to Cortes Island ferry users

After a brief discussion of meeting format, the will of the room was not to break into smaller groups, but to proceed with a general discussion of these issues. Ms Trevena opened the discussion by asking “How should a marine highway system work?” and explaining the relationship between BC Ferries and the provincial government. She reported that the NDP, on being elected, had changed the language of one section of BCF’s charter to replace the phrase “commercial interest” with “public interest.” BCF, she said, is making long-term capital investment plans right now; but their plans will have to be approved by the Ministry, based on the Ministry’s understanding of the public need and will.

Prepared Presentations

Hubert Havelaar read a prepared statement suggesting that preferred loading at Quathiaski Cove for Cortes travellers should be extended to five days a week rather than two. Having only two preferred loading days, he explained, caused a significant bottleneck because many Cortes travellers with an appointment to keep will try to travel on those two days. If they were spread out over the entire week, he felt the impact on Quadra travellers would be reduced.

Mr Havelaar also pointed out that there are three ferries from Q Cove to Campbell River prior to the first connecting ferry available to Cortes residents. He felt that five days a week of preferred loading on the first connecting ferry would “cost BC Ferries nothing” and improve the service.

Rod Lee read aloud some excerpts from the BC Ferries mission statement which emphasised service and quality of life. He said that while he understood that many decisions were driven by financial considerations — particularly in government — he asked BC Ferries and the Ministry to “put people first”. Other provincial transportation systems, he said, receive millions of dollars for infrastructure; he asked the NDP government to give BCF more financial support.

Sonya Friesen spoke as representative of the Cortes Island Transportation Committee, presenting a list of eight talking points: shuttle service to support foot passenger ferry use, better dropoff and pickup points for buses at Campbell River terminal, reservations or priority loading for perishable freight, reservation system extended to the small routes, discount fares for vehicles on underutilised runs, onboard charging for e-bikes, reserved spots for car-share vehicles, and promotion of ridesharing perhaps including a discount for multi-occupant vehicles. HOV discounts or priority loading were also mentioned by other attendees. Jan Boas noted that BCF is already planning a renovation of the Campbell River terminal including improved bus access.

Efficient End-To-End Transportation

Discussion now focussed on issue #1, efficient end to end transport of people and goods. Elizabeth Anderson said that she would like to travel without a vehicle; but just to go to Salt Spring Island would take all day, with no certainty of actually arriving. “We need to get more cars off the road,” she said; what about improved connections between ferries and public transit? Sue Ellingsen pointed out that we do have part of the solution in place: the Klahoose passenger shuttle and IslandLink.

Director Anderson later conveyed, on behalf of Klahoose council member Stephen Brown who could not be present, the news that Klahoose First Nation was considering extending their ferry minibus into a general island shuttle. Later in the meeting, Ashley Zarbatany reminded the room that hitch-hiking is not always safe for women, and that a shuttle service would be preferable.

The perennial frustration of perishable goods transport came up, as it often has in ferry discussions. What about assured loading in the summer for refrigerated produce and dairy trucks, so they don’t have to run their coolers while waiting in the lineup for hours? Ms Boas responded, on behalf of the FAC, that BCF was proposing to approve one assured-loading grocery truck two or three days of the week, but they would not accept several Cortes-bound trucks all expecting preferred loading on the same day; “they’ll have to share.” Ms Boas said that she was waiting for proposals for a sharing arrangement from local grocers, but had not yet received any.

Bernice McGowan wanted BCF and islanders to bear in mind the number of people who for various reasons do not drive: seniors who are no longer licensable, people with disabilities, people who have never applied for a license. The question of foot-passenger service to Campbell River was discussed at some length, with apparent agreement on the advantages of a cross-Quadra shuttle service. Travis Pawlak said that he thought BC Ferries should, if anything, be transitioning to smaller ferries (encouraging foot passengers rather than cars): “scale back!” It’s cheaper, he said, to subsidise a shuttle service than to keep buying and building bigger ferries.

There was some discussion of a ferry route from Mary Point to Sarah Point or Bliss Landing, connecting Cortes Island to Powell River. The route is more protected, said Brent Swain, and fairly short. The traditionally sore subject of loading and unloading order came up; Ms (E) Anderson objected strongly to BCF staff’s failures to unload cars in the “fair” order, thus nullifying the effort travellers make to get up extra early and secure a place at the front of the line-up.

Connecting People, Leaving Cars Behind?

The discussion then moved on to Issue #2, “equitable and accessible”. Max Thaysen asked whether foot passengers are not treated in some ways like second class citizens, expected to hike long distances at some terminals; and mentioned the lack of any infrastructure on deck for bike parking. Some residents also thought that the $2 charge for a bicycle was “petty” and counterproductive; BCF should be encouraging or even rewarding more bicycle use, they said.

One resident suggested an even more radical way to encourage people to leave their cars behind: free travel for foot passengers. However, as Bob Katzko pointed out, unless there is good public transit to the terminals, we would need to find space for those cars to be parked.

Brittany Baxter pointed out that inefficient ferry connections separate many first nations people from their family and kin groups. She asked whether BCF could offer smaller ferries with direct routes between first nations communities, as part of reconciliation and reparation. The issue of BCF terminals located on unceded indigenous land was also raised: what, if anything, is BCF doing about this?

De Clarke asked MsTrevena to consider the change in quality of BCF service when Greyhound Bus ceased operations. At one time riders could get on a bus which then rolled onto a ferry, then off the ferry and on to its destination, for an affordable fare. Accessibility and equity were well served by Greyhound; but then that bus service disappeared. Should BCF think of itself as public transit, more than as a marine highway which presupposes car ownership and use?

Waiting Until 2032 For A New Ferry??

More than one person mentioned BCF’s plan to upgrade the Campbell River-Q Cove run with two new ferries sometime in 2022. There is no plan to upgrade the Quadra/Cortes run until 2032, with obvious implications for Cortes Island ferry overloads and inaccessibility. Tourism was frequently mentioned as completely overwhelming the ferry system: “many people don’t even try to leave the island in the summer.”

While one option is for BCF to plan to scale up, providing more and larger ferries to meet increasing demand, some residents felt that alternative strategies were more worthwhile. Aside from reducing car use, which was mentioned by many attendees, another question was asked: what if the province could improve the services available in the coastal communities, so that people didn’t have to use the ferry as often? Might that investment in local services be cheaper than open-ended growth of BCF?

Residents share their concerns and needs

An Uncertain Future: Climate Change Matters

Addressing issue #2, climate change, opinion was both united and divided. Those gathered in the room seemed to agree strongly that climate change was an urgent issue and that BCF needed to take action and change its business model and/or technology. The range of suggestions, however, was wide and various.

One resident expressed skepticism about investment in LNG-powered vessels. Given the shaky future of fossil fuel and the fact that ferries can see 60 years of service, he asked why BCF would invest in a technology so likely to become obsolete. Why not skip the intermediate steps, he suggested, and switch to hydrogen fuel cell power? Thorium reactors were also mentioned as a potentially cleaner power source for electric ferries.

Electric ferries were the subject of some debate, with questions raised about their range and suitability for, e.g. the Cortes/Quadra run. While they are 40 percent more expensive to acquire, said Ms Zarbatany, fuel savings mean that the average electric ferry pays off its price differential within 5 years. There are many shorter runs, she said, where electric ferries could be practical. Why commit to an LNG contract?

Others felt that even though new electric ferries might sound good, replacing the fleet was itself was a form of wasteful consumerism; shouldn’t we keep our old ferries running as long as we can, instead of just scrapping them?

Director Anderson raised the question of sea level rise, which would affect many BCF terminals. What if big ferries with high-tech docks vulnerable to sea level changes are not a good investment? Could we return to simple drop-ramp barges?

What about the problem of ferries wastefully running empty or near-empty, emitting tons of carbon and consuming thousands of litres of fuel for very little benefit? Mr Swain asked whether some runs could be unscheduled, departing when the ferry was full; or whether some kind of online reservation system could determine departure time based on passenger needs (similar to the Doodle online meeting scheduler).

Many residents challenged Ms Trevena on the environmental aspect of BCF operations and NDP policy. Mr Thaysen asked whether Ms Trevena considered fracked gas as any cleaner than coal, overall. Jon Knowles said it made no sense to talk about electric ferries “while criss-crossing the country with pipelines.” (The Unist’ot’en protest remained a subtext of the discussion.) Mr Swain asked why BC doesn’t require scrubbers to be installed on the stacks of all vessels. Ms Baxter asked whether BCF could aim for a ferry system that does no harm — “can the system work for life, instead of against it?”

Coastal Values

Although time was starting to run short, there was some discussion of Issue #4, how BCF can operate consistently with the values of coastal communities. Many community members had already talked about their values and ethics when environmental policy and climate change were discussed; but more questions were now asked about BC Ferries itself.

Why, asked Andy Ellingsen, is it semi-autonomous? One resident asked whether it made sense, if BCF is part of the highway system, to privatise that one element of the system — like privatising just one section of the highway to Victoria? The rationale given for that decision by a past government was forthrightly described as “Bullsh*t” by one community elder, and several people said they wished the NDP would re-nationalise (re-provincialise, technically) BCF as a Crown Corporation. “Why continue this patchwork system just to commemorate Wacky Bennett?” asked Mr Ellingsen.

There was some criticism of BCF’s efforts to rebrand its larger vessels as “cruise ships” and court the tourist trade, while providing inadequate service to BC coastal residents. Mr Lee pointed out that revenues from gift shop and food sales on those “cruise ships” were significant and helped to underwrite the unprofitable small coastal routes.

What Next?

In the course of discussion, Ms Baxter at one point reminded Ms Trevena that some of the strategies being discussed were things “we have asked for over and over again, but nothing ever happens.” How, she asked, do we actually get heard?

Ms Trevena pointed out that her assistant had been diligently taking notes throughout the meeting; Trevena promised to bring the voices of coastal communities back to the Ministry and the ferry corporation. She also reminded attendees of the government ferry survey page. It appears that our MLA is listening; perhaps under this NDP government BCF might also have to listen? Only time will tell.

Youngest attendees: what ferries will they be riding 20 or 30 years from now?

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