Minister rejects petition to put Ferries back under highways

A 20,000-signature petition calling for the restoration of B.C. Ferries to the Ministry of Transportation was rejected

A 20,000-signature petition calling for the restoration of B.C. Ferries to the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure was brought to the floor of the legislature Tuesday and promptly dismissed by Transportation Minister Todd Stone.

But proponents are just getting started.

“This is something that’s not going away, because it’s not going away in our communities,” said Jim Abram of Quadra Island, chair of the Strathcona Regional District Board of Directors.

“Since the petition was put back up at 4 p.m. (Tuesday) afternoon, almost 3,000 more people have signed. That was just overnight.”

The petition, posted by Laural Eacott of Powell River and hosted on the Internet site change.org, calls for the return of BC Ferries to the status of public highways. Ferries were a part of the provincial transportation system until becoming a provincial crown corporation in the 1970s.

In 2002, it was changed by the Liberal government to an ostensibly private corporation. But the province is the only shareholder and provides an annual subsidy to BC Ferries.

“The Liberals decided they wanted to offload some debt from their books,” said Abram. “So they switched it to the BC Ferry Authority, which is supposed to be a quasi-private thing. Nobody really knows what it is.”

When the petition reached Eacott’s goal of 20,000 signatures, Abram — a longtime proponent of ferries in Coastal B.C. — helped her negotiate the steps to have it introduced before the legislature.

The petition was presented by independent MLA Vicki Huntington of Delta South and tabled by legislature.

The opposition NDP “were all advised and up-to-date on what we were doing,” said Abram.

“The reason behind going with an independent MLA was we did not want to give the Liberal government the opportunity to say, ‘This is just NDP rhetoric’ or ‘This is just Green rhetoric.’”

Stone replied to reporters Tuesday that putting ferries back into the government “doesn’t solve the underlying problems at BC Ferries, the challenging financial realities.”

Among those are a $1.3 billion debt. In 2013 the ministry announced a series of service cuts and rate increases designed to create savings. Those measures went into effect last spring. Yet another rate hike, of 3.9 per cent, is coming in April.

Abram counters that the best way to cut costs at BC Ferries is to lose its board, commissioner’s office and the “600 bureaucrats who are paid excessively well,” in addition to the interest on the debt.

“The petition is letting government know people have had enough of this nonsense,” said Abram. “We’ve had a 12-year experiment that has failed. We need fares decreased, service restored, and ferries returned to highways. The only way to get ridership up is to do that.”

Many people only learned of the petition  Tuesday, when it was presented to legislature, and were disapointed to discover it had been closed after reaching its 20,000 signature goal. But after several radio programs announced where to find the petition during their coverage Tuesday, Eacott re-activated it late in the afternoon and within 24 hours the petition gained another 2,976 supporters.

Abram admitted a petition alone is unlikely to get the ministry to bend on the issue.

“What’s going to bend the government is a sound, economic case,” he said. “We’re going to show them it’s wrong and how to run this more efficiently.

“There are all kinds of good reasons to put it back into the ministry. There are very few reasons why it shouldn’t be.”