Open letter on the Coastal Ferries Community Engagement process

from John Hodgkins, Gabriola Ferry Advisory Committee Chair.

Unfortunately, I shall be out of the country when the public engagement meeting takes place in Gabriola on December 10.  Representatives of the Ferry Advisory Committee will be in attendance, however, and we will be compiling a formal response to the Engagement process before the December 20 deadline.

As many will no doubt point out on the 10th, we regard this so-called  “community engagement” process as deeply flawed; presented as a vehicle for public consultation, but in reality nothing more than a statement of a political decision that has been reached with little or no recognition of the impact it will have on the lives, employment and businesses of gulf islanders.

After the 2012 consultation, government announced it would be deferring any reductions in ferry services until April 2014 and would be consulting with the affected communities during the Fall.  The Chairs of the thirteen Ferry Advisory Committees requested meetings with the Minister’s staff to provide informed input ahead of the public consultation; those requests were declined.

On August 19  I submitted a discussion paper to Ministry officials and BC Ferries emphasising the importance of understanding the socio-economic needs and dependencies of coastal communities before any proposals were drawn up, recommending a joined-up approach with local governments to conduct a comprehensive needs analysis to inform the process. That paper has been ignored.

Even after the Community Engagement process commenced, FAC Chairs requested (and were promised) information to evidence how the proposed service cuts had been arrived at, in anticipation that this might help us develop an informed response within our local communities and to support any subsequent dialogue with the Province or BC Ferries aimed at minimising the impact of the proposals on our community. That promise has been broken.

In a final attempt to draw out some substantive evidence of the methodology used in arriving at the proposals, I wrote once more to the Ministry and BC Ferries on December 2 spelling out my concern at the lack of detailed information supplied and setting out my interpretation of the assumptions that appeared to have been made in arriving at the $400,000 projected annual savings on Route 19.  Those assumptions suggested a lack of consistency between information provided verbally at a meeting on November 19 and the level of savings now being projected. It appeared that either the level of saving to BC Ferries was being understated, or that the severity of cuts being imposed was greater than was actually necessary. No response has been forthcoming from the Ministry or from BC Ferries, leading inevitably to the conclusion that we are not being told the whole story.

Over the past few weeks, the Ferry Advisory Committee has worked closely with the Islands Trust’s Transportation Advisory Commission on Gabriola to measure the impact of these ferry cuts on our local community.  In addition to an on-line survey completed by more  than 800 Gabriolans, we have conducted on-board passenger interviews on the majority of the affected sailings. Those surveys revealed that more than a third of all passengers interviewed were dependent on those sailings for travel to or from their place of work. They also confirmed what we already knew, that using vehicle utilisation as the determinant of which sailings to cut ignored the scale of impact that the proposals would have on passengers who, in many cases, travel on Route 19 without a car. The fact that only 38% of people travelling on these sailings are car drivers understates hugely the true impact of the cuts on the Gabriola community.

We learned that many shiftworkers depend on the early and late sailings during the day – and at weekends – for their livelihood. We learned of businesses on Gabriola Island that are reliant on these sailings for the delivery of basic supplies – including the delivery of foodstuffs to our village supermarket. We very quickly concluded that the cuts proposed were untenable to large numbers within the community who would be forced to consider giving up their job or moving off island. All evidence that would have been identified had the desired socio-economic analysis been conducted.

We have heard a range of opinion from people in the community that these cuts will bring severe hardship; we have also heard of some alternatives that have been suggested to mitigate the impact of cuts on our working community. None of those alternatives would deliver a painless solution of course – especially on a ferry route that is consistently well used throughout the working day and frequently incurs overloads on successive sailings throughout the morning from Gabriola and over several sailings from Nanaimo during the afternoon.

However, the expectation that the Ferry Advisory Committee will work with BC Ferries during January to “fine tune” the proposals to minimise impact on the community is both unrealistic and an insult to our community.  It is for government to listen to the concerns of island residents and revisit the very basis on which the decisions have been reached. Ferry Advisory Committees cannot and will not offer up alternative solutions if their requests for information continue to be ignored or rejected.

We know that there are opportunities to achieve the level of financial saving now being sought in less damaging ways through open and honest dialogue about loss-making routes to the mainland; through potential rationalisation of terminal facilities and a less restrictive, open-access approach to our terminals, yet each of these alternatives is hidden from public scrutiny while permanent damage is being done to our lifeline ferry services.

Ferry Advisory Committees are volunteers from a variety of backgrounds in local communities; they exist at the behest of BC Ferries to facilitate a two-way dialogue between the community and the Ferry Corporation on matters of local operational relevance, yet our requests for clarification of even the most basic assumptions and methodology to both BC Ferries and the government have been consistently ignored.

All of the evidence points to a wholly flawed process that will cause irreparable economic damage to our coastal community with one certainty only; that whatever the outcome in 2014, it will not address the fundamental underlying financial crisis in the coastal ferry system. Unless and until there is a genuine acknowledgement that it is the whole relationship between BC Ferries, the government and the taxpayer that has spiralled us into this mess, the future willingness of volunteers to serve as Ferry Advisory Committee members – and the very purpose that the Ferry Advisory Committees are intended to serve – has to be in question.

John Hodgkins

Chair, Gabriola Ferry Advisory Committee

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