Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Turbulent waves at Public session on ferries

It probably was a case of preaching to the converted but last weeks public forum on ferry usage in British Columbia was well received by some very angry north coast residents.

MLA Gary Coons brought his traveling forum to Prince Rupert last Wednesday, allowing local residents to express their concerns and in many cases indignation at the state of the ferries and the government’s hands off attitude to an important coastal resource.

The Daily News highlighted some of the commentary in its front page story in Monday’s paper.


By Leanne Ritchie
The Daily News
Monday, January 21, 2008
Pages one and three

The discrimination against rural ferry-dependent communities that have a "marine highway" was the key focus of a meeting in Prince Rupert Wednesday evening.

About 40 people attended the 'Fight Ferry Fares' meeting hosted by North Coast MLA Gary Coons. Coons has been touring rural communities gathering comments on the failure of the marine highway system for the past month.

"The major concern was the fairness and equity to those on minor routes versus the major routes," said Coons.

B.C. Ferries was privatized under Bill 18, the Coastal Ferry Act, by the Liberals in 2001.
The bill cut up the marine highway system and segregated the major routes from the minor routes.

It was decided that major routes, or non-subsidized routes, would no longer be allowed to subsidize minor routes. Now, minor routes are facing a user-pay system in order to reduce the contributions being made by the provincial government, without any reference to the impacts this decision might have on rural communities, which produce much of the province's economic activities.

"We need to be on the same equity level as the other routes, a 'highway equivalency' should be looked at," said Coons.

Those at the meeting reflected the concern expressed last year by the directors of the Skeena Queen Charlotte Regional District, that new ships and terminal improvements are necessary but the costs are being borne by routes and are a real hit to smaller communities.

Coons said it angers people when they compare the vital ferry system to the support received by other forms of provincial transportation, such as highways and public transit.

"Ferries must be recognized as our Marine Highway and be in the same light as other Transportation projects with appropriate funding," said Coons.

"We all pay for the road to Whistler, the bridge infrastructure in Vancouver and Kelowna. Vessels and major upgrades need to be born by all British Columbians."

Recent fuel surcharges have also been higher on rural routes and the only watchdog for the ferry system, the B.C. Ferry Commissioner, is only responsible for the financial sustainability of the corporation, not the public's interest.

Given that the Coastal Ferry Act was introduced with minimal public consultation and minimal debate in the legislature all in less than 24 hours, people at the meeting said it is time to amend the legislation to include public consultation with those that rely and depend on ferries.

"Residents and businesses in ferry-dependent communities contribute to public transportation through gas taxes, sales taxes, rural provincial property taxes, income taxes and regional district transit levies," said Coons.

"They expect fair and equitable treatment and their government to support their transportation needs as it supports public transportation needs throughout the province."

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