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Rob Shaw: Long weekend, long list of problems, long wait for a fix at BC Ferries

The mess continues and there is no end in sight
B.C. Premier David Eby touts a BC Ferries capital plan that will take seven long years to bear fruit, writes Rob Shaw. | Mike Wakefield / North Shore News files

When the NDP government fired BC Ferries’ CEO last April, the promise was simple: This will help things get better at the problem-plagued ferry system.

But more than a year later, the situation at BC Ferries is worse than ever. The corporation remains a mess of staff shortages, ship failures and furious customers. There’s no end in sight to the problems.

The Canada Day long weekend is looking like a chaotic snarl of delays and lines — with one major vessel out for repair, thousands of reservations shuffled, massive waits and overflowing terminals.

So it was little surprise that Premier David Eby started getting hit with questions about the state of BC Ferries this week. After all, it was the NDP that fired the last CEO, and Eby who hand-picked the new leadership regime. The current provincial government has direct control of BC Ferries, by its own choosing, for better or for worse.

"I don't find it acceptable,” Eby said of the current service. “But I do understand the challenges that BC Ferries faces for the long term.

“BC Ferries has the capital plan in place to get those new boats in place to ensure that people can get where they need to get and I want to thank British Columbians for their patience this weekend. And I want to encourage BC Ferries to redouble their efforts to ensure timely affordable access for British Columbians.”

The premier makes it sound like BC Ferries is on the verge of major solutions with new boats. But the capital plan he referenced won’t put six major new vessels into service until 2030. The public won’t tolerate a seven-year time-frame for improvements.

There is something the NDP government could do at BC Ferries to produce much faster results: Boost the provincial subsidy.

To be fair, the province did give BC Ferries $500 million earlier this year. But it was one-time money earmarked to avoid a forecasted spike in annual fare increases of almost 10 per cent, and also to help electrify the fleet so that the NDP can more easily meet its climate goals.

BC Ferries contends that its major problem is a staffing shortage, particularly among skilled mariners who are required in certain numbers by Transport Canada. Many have been lured away by private firms. Others are close to retiring, with nobody to replace them.

The province provides more than $200 million a year to the ferry corporation. It could boost the amount to increase salaries to a more-than-competitive rate, offer recruitment bonuses for key positions and create financial incentives for the right skilled staff to come back to BC Ferries at the right locations.

More money to get more people certified as quickly as possible, in the right areas, would be welcome too.

Ideally, all of this should have started more than a year ago, when 173 cancelled sailings sparked a crisis that forced out the CEO. But the NDP government felt (wrongly) it was a leadership problem at BC Ferries.

The leadership problem, though, is at the provincial level, by politicians who open the purse strings only when scared about the public backlash over ticket prices.

Both the previous Liberal government, and the current NDP government, have been loathe to add much more to the annual operating subsidy for BC Ferries, preferring instead to demand efficiencies from the corporation as it struggles to serve a rising population with shrinking staff.

The NDP wants to keep BC Ferries in the same quasi-private corporate structure the BC Liberals created, so that billions in ferry debt is off the provincial books and carried privately by the corporation.

But it won’t let BC Ferries raise ticket prices, because of political backlash. And it won’t let BC Ferries act like a private company would, by cutting service on unprofitable routes to refocus resources on major crisis areas — because ferries are considered an essential public service, and have to run at a loss on most routes.

So the mess at BC Ferries continues.

It’s an extension of the provincial highway system, underfunded by the province, masquerading as a private business, unable to offer competitive compensation, while not allowed to reduce its service or raise its prices to solve its many problems.

Something in that equation has got to give. Or the chaos at BC Ferries will just continue.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]