Opinion

50 First Dates with the province and BC Ferries

I can’t help feeling as if we’re stuck in a real-life version of the movie 50 First Dates - you know, the Adam Sandler flick about a guy continually having to relive a first date with an amnesiac.

And, since I’m on movie metaphors, I’d suggest that we may also be facing a touch of the spin doctoring from Wag the Dog.

This Friday we’ll meet with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure. We are told that, “The B.C. coastal ferry service has been wrestling with cost pressures for more than 20 years. These cost pressures, if not addressed, could threaten the financial sustainability of the entire system”.

And so we are asked to address the immediate challenge of cutting $26 million by 2016, and also discuss which “elements should be pursued to connect coastal communities in an affordable, efficient and sustainable manner in the long-term”.

Does this have a familiar sound? During the summer of 2011 the Ferry Commission toured the province to discuss roughly the same thing. They presented themselves as a sympathetic audience, and British Columbians showered them with information – particularly about the skyrocketing fares. In return, we received a 12 per cent hike in fares.

I’ll offer no more than a reminder of the 2010, and 2009, discussions with BC Ferries, during which they suggested reducing service to Prince Rupert through their “Route 10A” proposal.

We need to assume that our arguments will always be forgotten as soon as they’re delivered, and we will always need to begin again with a seemingly amnesiac audience.

There are key points that we already know won’t resonate this time around. Transportation Minister Mary Polak has already publicly brushed aside any suggestion that lower fares might increase ridership. The structure of this consultation, throwing all routes together as equal, also rejects the understanding that profitable routes were always intended to subsidize less profitable routes. And given that the very first round of publicity contained the messaging that BC Ferries loses over $2,000 per vehicle on Route 10, I suspect that residents are being asked a leading question.

Be that as it may, here are my key talking points for Friday:

1. BC Ferries is an essential service for residents, and a vital component of the northern tourism industry, and should be considered an important part of the provincial highway system. We do not support the idea of the northern ferry service being economically sustainable in and of itself, and it should be further subsidized if necessary. We believe that as a driver for northern economic development it more than recoups government expense in tax revenues from the businesses and communities it helps sustain.

2. Ferry rates are prohibitive for use of BC Ferries as an essential service by residents. BC Ferries must not only be prevented from making further rate increases, but must be encouraged to reduce rates to encourage ridership.

3. BC Ferries must not be allowed to reduce service on northern routes.

4. BC Ferries must build northern traffic not only through affordable rates, but also through adequate marketing to an appropriate audience – which has also not happened.

5. With the economic downturn in coastal BC, BC Ferries jobs have helped sustain employment, and these jobs need to stay in coastal communities such as Prince Rupert.

And if these points sound familiar, it is because it’s the same list, almost word for word, that I printed here at the time of the August 2011 consultation.

This bizarre time warp really is like 50 First Dates, other than it feels a little more like war than romantic comedy. We continue to go forth to battle. It’s been demonstrated that we can’t win any of these battles, but if, just once, we fail to turn up at the field of battle we will have instantly lost the war.

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