Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Sticker shock hits the Charlottes

Gary Coons was able to get the attention of residents of the Queen Charlotte Islands on Monday night; all he had to do was total up the coast for two passengers and a vehicle to take a trip to Rupert and back.

At 500 dollars, the going rate for a Hecate Strait crossing, the rising fares suddenly have become a hot issue on Haida Gwaii.

The Queen Charlotte Observer had details on Coon’s public meeting Monday night, which doesn’t bode well for travel or the cost of goods coming onto the Islands.

Residents also updated the MLA on their concerns about the ferry service and the level of service offered through the Prince Rupert Terminal. Which it would seem has a bit of a public relations problem on its hands, described by one angry ferry user as a place that it “rude, awful and mean”.

Leaving the impression that the bureaucracy and lack of information isn’t exactly winning over the folks that will have to pay that 500 dollar return fee, every time that they want to get away!

Ferry fare to rise to $500, MLA tells surprised audience
Queen Charlotte Islands Observer
December 12, 2007

There were audible gasps Monday night as MLA Gary Coons told a public meeting that by 2011, it will cost $500 for two passengers and a vehicle to go from the islands to Prince Rupert and back.

"That's crazy," Masset resident Stew Gorrill said. "It's cheaper to fly. Holy Ch__st."Mr. Coons showed islanders a table of the rising fares calculated by a group of concerned ferry users, based on increases approved a few months ago by Ferry Commissioner Martin Crilly. But he warned that fares may be going up even higher than these predictions indicate, due to new information which just came out from the commissioner's office.

"The concern that we have for coastal communities like Haida Gwaii is, getting off the island is going to be horrendous and getting goods on is going to skyrocket," said Mr. Coons, who has spent the past few weeks talking to residents of ferry-dependent towns in the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island. "When the Queen of the North sank, it affected communities all over the province, not just coastal communities... The people I've been talking to believe this is just as devastating as the sinking, these fares."

Mr. Coons said the problem started in 2003, when the Liberal government passed the Coastal Ferry Act. The act turned BC Ferries from a crown corporation into a quasi-private corporation, which is run like a business and is no longer subject to Freedom of Information legislation.
"The Coastal Ferry Act was basically put into play in the legislature in 24 hours," Mr. Coons said. "There was no input, no consultation, basically no debate."

Most passengers probably didn't notice the change at first. But the Ferry Act has allowed the new BC Ferry Corp. to raise fares steadily. The government appointed a ferry commissioner to oversee and approve fare increases and make rulings on other issues, but Mr. Coons explained the commissioner's priority is to make sure Ferries is financially sustainable, and that the fare increases are designed to make passengers contribute more to the system.

Now, almost five years after the launch of the new BC Ferry Corp, coastal communities are beginning to voice their distress.

"People are really upset and angry. They didn't realize what was going to happen," Mr. Coons said. "It's going to be horrendous."

The NDP has taken the position that BC Ferries must be turned back into a crown corporation and that ferry fares must be frozen immediately. Mr. Coons handed out several copies of a petition to freeze fares, which was eagerly signed by almost everyone at the meeting. He said he would leave copies at the Masset village office and other locations on the islands.

Residents of other coastal towns are already talking about staging protests in the coming months, he said. In the Vancouver Island area, people are planning to dress up in prison-type outfits to symbolize how rising fares have imprisoned them in their communities, get on the ferry, and refuse to get off.

"People are really, really concerned because it's just tearing apart their communities," he said. "These fares are devastating residents and businesses and tourism."

Islanders at the Masset meeting had other ferry-related concerns, telling Mr. Coons they're worried about safety, not satisfied with the service at Prince Rupert terminal, and don't like the long wait times to get on board.

Margo Hearne said she recently took the ferry to Rupert - a trip which involved leaving her warm Masset home at 7 pm, making sure she was at the Skidegate terminal two hours ahead of the scheduled sailing time, and then waiting in the cold, dark terminal parking lot until she finally boarded the ferry at midnight, well past the expected boarding time."This is just cruel, this is inhuman," Ms Hearne said. "Why are they doing this to us?"Jana McLeod had just returned that morning from a swim club trip off-island with 18 children. New requirements meant every child had to show ID and have his or her ticket checked separately, creating "a bit of a hassle" before they could board. Ms McLeod said employees at the Skidegate terminal are helpful and understanding, but service in Prince Rupert is "rude, awful and mean".

Ms Hearne said BC Ferries is putting a lot of pressure on the crew to make sure vessels leave right on time, and that conditions in Hecate Strait are just too dangerous for that."I think we're heading for a disaster, honestly I do," she said. "The crew of these ferries are probably as good as you're going to get anywhere, but they're under pressure to leave on time."

Mr. Coons agreed, pointing to a safety report commissioned by BC Ferries which raised the on-time issue. BC Ferries has been handing out bonuses based on on-time performance, and there is a concern that this could compromise safety.

Mr. Coons wrapped up the Masset meeting by urging islanders who are concerned about the future of ferry service to sign the petitions and get in touch with other ferry-dependent communities. The government will eventually listen if people protest enough, he said.

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