Gabriola FAC asking Ferries Minister to address issues on a route-specific basis

Derek Kilbourn

Sounder News

Tuesday, January 16 2018

The Gabriola Ferry Advisory Committee (FAC) has written a letter to Claire Trevena, BC Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure, requesting the Minister consider visiting two specific issues for the Gabriola ferry route, in view of the upcoming review of BC Ferries.

First, that service levels on the Gabriola-Nanaimo route be restored to what was in effect prior to the cuts in 2014.

Second, that the Minister consider allowing some flexibility in the free seniors’ travel days, because, on routes like Gabriola’s which are already consistently overloaded on weekdays, the free travel for seniors from Monday to Thursday is only going to make matters worse.

The Gabriola FAC also invites the Minister to come to Gabriola to talk about ferry and other transportation issues.

 In the letter, Steven Earle, Chair of the Gabriola Ferry Advisory Committee, says the Gabriola FAC welcomes the review process and looks forward to providing any input that may be deemed appropriate to support the review process. 

“We sincerely hope that this exercise signals a sea change back towards viewing a sustainable, affordable ferry service as part of the social contract and a vital service for coastal communities.”

Earle says the request for a return to pre-2014 service levels is a step that needs to go hand in hand with the affordability measures the NDP government has already committed to. 

“Ferry overloads and congestion are already a serious problem on Gabriola, and they will only be exacerbated by measures that lead to increased ridership.

“The NDP has correctly identified that there is a vital need to reduce fare pressure. However, as that pressure is reduced, it is inevitable that there will be more traffic than current depleted service levels are able to support.”

For the second request regarding the potential free seniors’ travel starting April 1, the FAC asks the Ministry for strategies which will spread traffic to under-utilized sailings on a route-specific basis. 

“Specifically, we ask [the Minister] to re-examine [her] decision to restore free travel for seniors from Monday to Thursday on all routes across the system. 

“One size most definitely does not fit all and we have seen over and over again that approaches that are targeted at the major routes are often inappropriate for the minor routes.”

The FAC supports the seniors’ discount in principle but, on Gabriola, demand for daytime ferry services already routinely exceeds capacity from Tuesday to Thursday. 

Fare incentives, says Earle, including the restoration of free travel for seniors, must be implemented flexibly, and tailored specifically to spreading demand to non-peak times and days of the week. 

The FAC says that on the Gabriola route the best days for seniors’ discounts would be Friday through Monday. 

“This is a no-cost way to provide relief for a route that has serious mid-week overload issues. To insist on applying the system-wide Monday to Thursday discounts is foolhardy, ensuring further stress on a system which is already stretched well beyond its limits.”

The FAC cites the 2014 UBCM report Boatswains to the Bollards: A Socioeconomic Impact Analysis of BC Ferries in providing historical background for why the requests are being made.

“As you’ll recall, 2013’s flawed BC Ferries “engagement process” was merely a prelude to the devastating cuts of 2014.”

Despite tremendous public opposition, on the Gabriola-Nanaimo Harbour route (Route 19), BC Ferries mandated a $400,000 reduction to the route, or the equivalent of 834 round trip sailings. 

“These were some of the proportionally highest cuts made to any of the so-called minor routes, despite the fact that this route has historically been one of the most heavily used of the non-major routes, with the fourth-highest rate of utilization (BC Coastal Ferries Community Engagement 2013, Submission by Gabriola Island Ferry Advisory Committee, pg. 1). 

“Evidence shows that the cost reductions achieved on Route 19 far exceeded the target of $400,000. The impacts experienced by our community were social, economic, medical, educational and cultural, to name a few.”

The original revised schedule attempted to maintain service hours that were as close as possible to the original pre-cuts schedule by focusing the service reduction on midday. 

This was a disaster.

BC Ferries could not maintain an acceptable quality of service without sufficient midday sailings. 

As a result, early morning sailings were cut in order to preserve access to later evening sailings. 

Consequently, some residents of Gabriola moved off island. 

Those who moved away included shift-workers, people who commuted to Vancouver and could no longer make an early Horseshoe Bay connection, and families with teenage children who had early sports commitments in Nanaimo.

The other area where Gabriola is seriously impacted on an ongoing basis by service cuts is by the continued loss of weekend afternoon sailings. 

As pointed out by the FAC, while BC Ferries has restored those sailings during the busiest peak summer season and on holiday weekends on a trial basis, they are still absent the rest of the year. 

The community finds a 2.5 hour and longer gap at one of the busiest travel times to be very challenging on any number of levels.

“The impact is particularly severe during the shoulder season when we still see significant tourist volume, and of course in December when there is more discretionary travel for shopping, seeing family, etc. 

As well, the FAC points out that “the midday break in service results in significant ambulance service delays.”

Why does all this matter? 

Earle writes the results of the last census confirmed that the composition of Gabriola’s population is changing. 

“Essentially, it’s skewing towards retirees and away from young families and working people, and it’s doing so more rapidly than other areas of the province. 

“If our reduced service hours are making it difficult or impossible for professionals to pursue commuter job opportunities in Nanaimo or Vancouver, or for families to live here while their teens are in school, then that only reinforces this demographic shift.”

For Gabriola to be diverse and sustainable, he writes, the island needs a reliable, affordable ferry system that meets everyone’s needs. 

“Our service is not just about Gabriola’s present, it is about our future.

The letter is signed on behalf of the Gabriola Island Ferry Advisory Committee by Steven Earle, Gabriola FAC Chair; Heather O’Sullivan, Islands Trustee and FAC member; and Howard Houle, RDN Area B Director and FAC member. Minister Trevena, Gabriola MLA Doug Routley, and the communications department for the Transportation Ministry were contacted for comment on this FAC’s letter, but had not responded as of press time.