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I Am Skooter
So here's us, on the raggedy edge.
She used to work in a diner / never saw a woman look finer / I used to order just to watch her float across the floor
— Neil Young, Unknown Legend
June 5, 2011
On the Joy of BC Ferries

I spend a lot of time on BC Ferries these days, moving back and forth between Vancouver and the Gulf Islands. It’s quite nice, but it’s amazing how quickly the beauty of a ferry trip becomes just another way to get back and forth from point A to point B. Most of the time, I’d rather just get there.

BC Ferries was officially privatized by the Campbell government in 2003 but it’s always been something of a farce. The ferries operate, at best, as a pseudo private organization still dependent on government money for a substantial portion of revenues. A couple of years ago Gordon Campbell himself announced that ferry fares would be cut by 30% leading anybody able to think clearly to wonder why the premier was announce a cut in prices for a private corporation.

I’m willing to concede that the ferries themselves can (and maybe should) operate as a private entity, but not without pointing out that the province made one huge mistake in doing this that effectively makes the entire process suspect: they gave the ferry corporation the terminals.

Such a bad idea, for so many reasons.

BC Ferries has existed for years, and serves as an essential link between British Columbia’s more remote communities and the Lower Mainland, which is the major economic centre of the province. Despite the fact that these communities are increasingly the domain of wealthy land owners using them as recreation properties, these links are essential. If nothing else, they establish territorial sovereignty over coastal waters.

One of the key jobs of governments is to tie the geography of their countries together: Canada itself is essentially the result of the Hudson’s Bay Company trading routes linking a huge territory togethe and a promise to build a railroad linking east coast to west. Roads, rail beds, air travel routes, radio frequency spectrum and ferry routes are all tools governments use to create a unified whole.

There are businesses in British Columbia’s remote communities that depend on links to the mainland: Salt Spring Island Cheese and the Salt Spring Roasting Company are good examples (though the roasting company has since relocated.) These businesses depend on ferry service being provided and in theory a competition based ferry service would provide them with the lowest possible cost of getting their goods to the mainland. They could fly their goods, but the cost of flying goods is quite a bit higher from both an economic and environmental standpoint.

Salt Spring has three ferry terminals, providing amples opportunities to get on and off the island but all four terminals are owned by BC Ferries. This means that if anybody wants to provide a competitive service they have two choices: secure landing rights and build a new terminal, or negotiate with BC Ferries before competing with them.

Seems a bit silly doesn’t it?

The terminals represent precious real estate located in bays and inlets that are sheltered and safe for landing. They have good and effective road infrastructure going to them, and that road infrastructure is paid for and maintained by tax payers. BC Ferries current terminals were constructed at tremendous cost to the tax payer, and given to them at a cost that doesn’t nearly represent what it would cost to build them from scratch.

This amounts to nothing so much as a private company having been given a total monopoly. There’s simply no way anybody can compete.

Maybe someone can explain to me how it makes sense the way the deal was structured, though I’m going to need more than a simple “the company wouldn’t have been worth it without the terminals.” It was given away: of course it would have been worth it. They had existing routes, and a head start with a fully prepared fleet. If the province had kept the terminals and established a standard landing fee BC Ferries could have continued to operate and paid the fees.

Another competitor might have emerged with similar or different craft: imagine a company operating a passenger only Gulf Islands Ferry with shuttle service to popular destinations once you got there. Such a service could operate all summer, paying the same landing fees but offering a service tailored to their passengers.

They might ever offer a boat with cupholders, a completely non-smoking service and maybe a place to store your bike (BC Ferries charges $2 for a bicycle, but no services in exchange—not even a rack to put your bike in.)

It’s never going to happen, because the BC Liberal Party gave the current BC Ferries the biggest subsidy in the history of BC Business, and guaranteed an eternal monopoly in the process.

Sort of makes you think about why they call the NDP socialists doesn’t it?

This was amended. The original post said Salt Spring Island had four ferry terminals. This has been corrected to three. Ganges is Salt Spring’s major town, but does not have a ferry terminal.

Posted by skooter at 7:30 PM This entry is filed under Politics, Travel.
This entry is tagged: BC Ferries, BC Liberal Party, Privatization, Salt Spring Island Monopoly

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