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Innovative Solutions for BC Ferries

Brendan B. Read, Transport Action

Massive delays on weekends and holidays like at Easter Holiday. Aging vessels, especially those built in the mid-1960s and were stretched and lifted breaking down. Smaller communities at risk of being cut off thanks to labour disputes between BC Ferries and its workers that threaten to worsen with proposed privatization plans; the arbitrator’s report may be out by May. Ferry traffic competing for road space with traffic from airports and residential development, resulting in added congestion and pollution.

Amidst all this BC Ferries has big plans for new vessels. It also wants to see more passenger-only service.

Yet BC Ferries also wants to move its headquarters to enable its management to be “closer” to the people who report to them. Given the above is it wise for BC Ferries to spend customers’ money to relocate: when high-speed wired and wireless connections limit the need for such offices?

Transport Action www.transport2000.ca which represents Canadian transportation consumers wants BC Ferries to alter course and take instead some innovative routes that will relieve ongoing problems, protect smaller communities, enable fairer labour negotiation and save money. T2000 urges BC Ferries stakeholders: labour, municipalities, businesses and community groups to engage the provincial government in a dialogue to steer this ship in the right direction.

Relieving Ferry Congestion

Transport Action applauds BC Ferries for wanting to build new vessels. But we note that it will take 2 years, if not more for new ships to be constructed and put into service—once the order contracts are signed.

There is already political wrangling over where they will be built which threatens to delay the process. The shipbuilders’ unions, citing a long and proud history of constructing BC Ferries’ vessels want the work done here: keeping ferry customers’ money in BC and Canada, instead of having the boats made offshore. With a provincial election looming where the ferries are built could become a highly visible political issue.

Moreover the new vessels will not relieve traffic, and resulting congestion and pollution. Highway 17, on the Saanich Peninsula and in Delta is heavily-used. Ferry traffic adds to the delays in the Massey Tunnel and there have been calls to ‘freeway-ize’ Highway 17 to Victoria—at considerable taxpayer expense.

Transport Action wants officials, in cooperation with transit and private bus companies to attract more through bus and foot-passenger traffic. That will free up deck space for cars and trucks on the Tsawwassen-Swartz Bay and Horseshoe Bay-Departure Bay routes.

Those measures could include:

  • Weekend/holiday express park-and-ride service to the ferry terminals, plus ferry-boarding buses to Island and Mainland destinations. Parking would be free at these lots.

    Routes could include Scott Road SkyTrain-Tsawwassen, Langford/Saanich-Swartz Bay and Metrotown/Brentwood Town Centre SkyTrain-Horseshoe Bay. Pacific Coach Lines would operate from Scott Road SkyTrain to downtown Victoria; also to Saanich and Langford; Greyhound buses would run through to downtown Nanaimo from Metrotown.

    BC Transit and TransLink would, in partnership with landowners, municipalities and bus operators identify and arrange for temporary lots.

  • Working with Greyhound/Laidlaw to relocate its Nanaimo bus terminal to Departure Bay, to make bus/ferry connections from Vancouver Island points more convenient and attractive.
  • Discussing with private charter and ferry operators, like HarbourLynx that runs from Nanaimo to downtown Vancouver to hear their suggestions how to handle more of the foot-passenger load, and what they need to do just that. We support having a YVR-Nanaimo and YVR-Swartz Bay passenger-only service connecting with the approved Richmond-Airport-Vancouver rapid transit.

Enticing people on board buses to and on the ferries and on passenger-only vessels would relieve congestion on the approach roads, particularly Highway 17 from Saanich to Swartz Bay and from Tsawwassen through the Massey Tunnel. That would limit the need to expand these highways and lower noise and air pollution to local communities.

The measures suggested can be implemented in as little as a year–or less–compared with the 2-plus year lead-time for new vessels to be planned, designed, built and put into service. We note that they are similar to the kinds of measures needed to support large influxes of people such as for the 2010 Olympics.

We also reject the notion of turning ferry terminals into shopping malls. It takes advantage of captive customers stuck because of service delays. As BC Ferries head David Hahn, a former Long Island Rail Road commuter will know firsthand—this paper’s author occasionally used the LIRR when he lived in the New York City borough of Queens—people in a hurry don’t like to linger unless they are stuck. That also goes for coastal residents who depend on BC Ferries.

By improving foot and through bus passenger traffic customers will have more choices compared with today. By attracting more foot and through bus passengers, and doing so farther from the ferry terminals BC Ferries can get the relief it needs now, without waiting for costly new vessels.

As alternatives to highway widening we prefer to see bus lanes and interim measures like bus priority signalling rather than general traffic lanes on that road. The bus volume, especially during the summer, justifies it. We should encourage more people to take the bus and one of the best ways is by giving priority to them.

Reusing existing vessels

Transport Action wants BC Ferries and the province to see what available vessels can be acquired and either put into service or in the case of passenger-only ferries, leased to private operators. BCF and the province may have missed, for example a potential opportunity to acquire like-new fast ferries when Washington State Ferries cancelled most of its passenger-only service into downtown Seattle.

We want BC Ferries and the province to meet with Washington Marine Group that bought the three PacifiCats to see if the vessels can be put back into use, such as on the Tsawwassen-Gulf Islands and Comox-Powell River routes. At least we would get some use of these ferries, the newest we have in our waters that we had poured our tax dollars into.

We point out that the Queen of Burnaby, the regular vessel on the Comox-Powell River run, had been built in 1965. The relief ship, Queen of Tsawwassen, was one of the original two BC Ferries, built in 1960. Both vessels are at or beyond their 40-year lifespan; BC Ferries had sold the Tsawwassen’s sister ship, the Queen of Sidney.

Taking a second look at privatization

We doubt whether there will be any benefits from privatizing local coastal vehicle-ferry routes like Comox-Powell River. The costs are similar (and high) regardless who runs them while the profit possibilities are limited by market size. Instead we are worried about the potential for fare hikes, service reductions and quality deterioration under private management that may well happen as they try and eke a profit under these challenging conditions.

These routes are essential services to Island communities, no different from the highways. We subsidize highways to rural and small communities; we should likewise support vehicle-carrying ferries to rural and small communities. We need to keep both transportation means affordable and high quality to enable mobility and economic activity for residents and businesses. In the case of the Mill Bay ferry it is the only vehicle-carrying alternative to the Malahat Highway. The Government kept the Coquihalla Highway; it should keep these locally vital ferry routes.

We think there should be other options explored. One such route is placing the Comox-Powell River-Texada, plus the Vesuvius-Crofton, Thetis/Kuper-Chemainus, Gabriola-Nanaimo, Hornby-Denman-Buckley Bay, Cortes-Quadra-Campbell River, Sointula/Alert Bay-Port McNeill and Skidegate-Alliford Bay runs back under the Ministry of Transportation. The province transferred these routes to BC Ferries in 1985.

Having these routes back under the ministry may protect vulnerable communities in the labour dispute between the ferry workers and BC Ferries. It may also enable fairer bargaining by both sides by removing some of the strike stigma.

Such a shift back to the Ministry and under Ministry management may be amenable to the unions compared with privatization. BC Ferries is seeking amendments to existing legislation to allow it to lay off workers if it contracts out to private firms. Even if this were to happen expect more service disruption from workers who were laid off.

Because these smaller routes are lifelines to their communities and because they have much different characteristics than the Mainland-Vancouver Island routes they shouldn’t be treated the same as them. There are truck barge, passenger-only ferry and commercial air alternatives between Nanaimo/Victoria and the Lower Mainland that are often not be available to smaller communities.

Decentralizing BC Ferries office staff

BC Ferries should reconsider its plans to move its Victoria office because it is a waste of money. The experience of such relocations is that they rarely pay off unless there are significant savings in labour and real estate costs which do not appear to be the case because the office will still be in the same labour and real estate market.

Moreover, modern computer technology: the advent and prevalence of e-mail, instant messaging, audio/data, video and Web conferencing has limited the need for in-person face-to-face communications. A 2002 study of Canadian executives by International Communications Research that said 94% of managers often send e-mail rather than meet one-to-one; 67% said very often.

The Calgary Herald, which carried the story in February 2003, quoted Bob Schultz, professor of strategic management at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business saying that e-mails “give managers the ability to respond to more people than before. Managers don’t have enough time to do face-to-face meetings with everyone.”

There is increasingly less need for formal offices, which adds 5%-10% to costs and which represent a de facto subsidy to employees. The data connectivity at homes: coastal communities are well-wired with cable and DSL service plus there is a growing wireless data network that enables employees to work from anywhere.

Back office functions like data processing, customer service and reservations are easily handled at home. The American discount airline JetBlue has its agents work at home. In Home Workplace, a soon-to-be-released handbook on teleworking written by Brendan Read, this paper’s author and published by CMP Books reveals that a home working strategy for 100 employees could save more than $10 million US over 5 years. Mr. Read works from his home in Courtenay as an editor with Call Center Magazine, which is based in New York City.

In the case of BC Ferries it is easy to see how wireless data networks could help employees and customers. Senior management can be out in the field with the same access to current information as they could if they were in the office, which saves time and improves productivity.

Transport Action recommends that BC Ferries take a hard look at its facilities strategy: to look at buildings with the view of “is it necessary for customers to subsidize this workstation”? It should examine a palette of options: wireless mobile working for senior management, teleworking and/or equipping ferry terminals in economically-struggling coastal communities (like Comox, Powell River, Port Hardy and Prince Rupert) for back office and reservations centres, using advanced network voice/data strategies.

Written by Brendan Read, Apr 2004