Friday, November 22, 2013

BC Ferries "engages" and I get a little angry

I've taken the time to read through the discussion guide, I filled out the form and the surveys last year too.  BC Ferries has entered into an "engagement" process about some decisions they are making to reduce the levels of our ferry service.  And there are some flaws in their process.

For Bowen they are proposing to reduce our service by eliminating the first two sailings on Saturday and Sunday mornings and the last sailing on Saturday night.  This will save the ferry corp $270,000 a year.  A few years ago the updated the otherwise just fine interior of our ferry for around $2.7 million.  We didn't need this cosmetic upgrade.  But we got it and now I guess we are paying for it, because it truns out thet BC Ferries didn't have the money to do it.  Or at least it seems that way.

There is so much to say about all this.  Let's start with the engagement process itself.

I'm not sure what the process has been.  BC Ferries has been surveying ferry users for a number of months now.  They released a very handy chart which showed ferry utilization last year.  But last night the showed up at the BICS gym and held an open house or something (I am away and couldn't attend) based on this set of proposals for reductions of service and increase of fares.  What ever their process actually is, it LOOKS like classic "tell and sell" work and it absolutely tanks trust between people and organizations.  So they are now badly trusted and everyone is cynical about the process.  If you want to engage ferry communities well, build relationships with them.  On the island's where crews live, which seems everywhere but here, islanders know their local ferry workers, and working on the ferry is a good job for local people, paying good union wages in otherwise isolated communities.  BC Ferries could have local employees living here, hanging out at the Snug, shooting the breeze with folks, sponsoring beach clean ups and ball tournaments.  But no.  They seem to just think of Bowen Island as a terminal they have to serve.

BC Ferries is a weird kind of company.  It is neither a private company or a Crown corporation.  It has a single shareholder - the province of BC - and it delivers on a single contract for ferry services.  In essence it is a semi-private transportation company that is bound to deliver a transportation service which is essential for island communities.  Imagine is all of the BC Highways were given to a single company to manage through a single contract.  Imagine if they incurred cost overruns from making pretty signage and painting the road with glittery messages despite residents desiring or needing it, and fixed the debt by deciding to close the highways at night, when they are "under utilized."  That's what we are facing.  And imagine if they just did that out of the blue and justified it simply using numbers without any kind of analysis for how it impacts highway dependant communities.

This is BC Ferries' methodology for these service reductions.  They have made decisions simply on the number of cars that travel on each sailing, not foot passengers.  They looked at which routes were running at less than 20% utilization and they have simply proposed cutting the lowest ones.  This is ridiculous.  There has been no socio-economic study of these cuts, no profile of the folks that use the early morning ferries - many of whom are shift workers who will now be forced to stay in Vancouver overnight to go to their jobs, if they end up staying on Bowen at all.  Under this new scenario, the earliest I will be able to leave my island on the weekend is 730.  Imagine if the people of Horseshoe Bay were not able to leave their village until 800 every weekend morning?  Often when we leave on trips we catch early morning boats...to make soccer and hockey practices in town you need these boats...to travel on other ferries to Vancouver Island for example, you'd leave on the early boat.  Starting at 530am is early enough, but starting service at 730 is ridiculous.

Others will argue "why should BC Ferries run a deficit to give you a ferry sailing that hardly anyone uses?"  And I would argue right back, why should I pay for roads in northeastern BC that I never use?  Ferries are a public service, but since 2003 they have been treated like a private service.  So instead of decisions made about how to best serve coastal communities, we have decisions made to best serve the bottom line, as if the entity providin gthe service was actually a company that could do what it wants.

Some wil argue "well you chose to live on an island, so suck it up."  To which I reply, where did you choose to live?  And why should I pay for your connections to the Lower Mainland or your nearest city.  You live in the suburbs or a small town for whatever reason you live there, but no one is arguing that you should have your local connections cut to save costs.  Why should we?  Why are ferries considered a luxury or a tourist operation in a province that has thousands of islands and thousands of kilometers of coastline dotted with communities full of working people?

Seems our local irascible libertarian islander army (usually opposed to taxation, subsidies and public services in general, until it affects them personally) has taken out its wrath on BC Ferries both through their connections to the political party in power and through the media.  I am glad they are doing this, because having been on the opposite side of another issue from them, I can attest that they are a pain in the ass to deal with when they have an issue in their teeth.  They will pester you endlessly regardless of whether they are making any sense or not. They will organize a petition (because petitions THEY organize are always worth doing, rather than petitions against, say docks)  I am glad our MLA Jordan Sturdy and the BC Ferries "engagement" team will taste their fire for a while. Perhaps the mayor will advise our MLA on a resourceful response to dissent.

(I won't be signing this petition by the way because the guys organizing were responsible for getting this crop of junior Republicans elected in the first place, as campaigners and funders of the BC Liberal party.  This is what happens when your pretty libertarian agenda gets implemented.  Hatred of "big government" = small government = idiotic service reductions.  We've already slashed social programs completely.  I wonder if this crew ever imagined that the chickens would come home to roost for them too?  Entitlement is a bitch, eh?)

At any rate, living on an island means you have to have a relationship with a ferry company.  BC Ferries is big pain in the arse to deal with, despite the fact that ferry usually works on time and the workers are prepared to dive into Howe Sound to save your life if you fall overboard.  Since the BC Liberals reorganized them they have operated with the worst kind of corporatist managerialism with no idea how to operate a public service, and the provincial government, who fully share the blame for this state of affairs, have been no better.  Grr.