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Ferry cost acts as a deterrent for visitors
As an island community, Bowen is dependent on the ferry, says Adam Holbrook, chair of the Bowen Island Municipal Transportation Advisory Committee, who presented his views about transportation issues to council last month.
“We are an island community that is defined by that particular transportation system,” he said. “For instance when you look at the difference between Bowen and Gambier, you could imagine that Gambier is what Bowen would be without the ferry system.”
One of the issues Holbrook spoke about is Bowen Island’s dependence on one vessel.
“The Queen of Capilano has to sail on the hour. If it breaks down, there is no replacement vessel,” he said. “It’s a fact that we have to rely on that vessel not only for the transport of people but also for supplies and food.”
The Horseshoe Bay to Snug Cove route is also a commuter run. That impacts the way the ferry is utilized, says Holbrook, adding that there is little seasonal variation, unlike on most other minor routes. Utilization rates vary over the course of a day and a couple of runs approach the capacity level for carrying foot passengers, especially at the time of day when the island’s circa 200 high school students commute.
“We have many people who live on Bowen and work in town,” Holbrook said. “That leads to the ferry being overloaded in one direction in the morning and in the other direction in the afternoon.” The overloads throttle access to the island and inhibit economic growth and social diversity, says Holbrook, adding that due to the high annual utilization rate “the consequent provincial contribution on a per-vehicle basis is the lowest of the minor routes.
Holbrook said that the Ministry of Transportation ran a series of ferry consultations with the aim to find and implement saving to balance the budget.
“I’m afraid that I don’t see the consultation as a success,” he said, adding that the outcome can potentially have a huge impact on Bowen Island.
“If you look at the statistics, the numbers for passengers as well as vehicles have gone down,” Holbrook explained.
The number of passengers has decreased by 1.2 per cent and the number of vehicles by 4 per cent compared to 2011/12. Although the average annual vehicle utilization rate by vehicle count comes to 51.6 per cent, Holbrook says that given that trucks and larger vehicles take up more deck space, the actual utilization based on automobile equivalents was closer to 58 per cent.
The lowest month for overloads was February where 37 out of 857 cars were overloaded (4.3 per cent). The highest was October with 186 out of 949 cars overloaded (19.6 per cent).
Experience cards are used for 86 per cent of travel.
“BC Ferries has been raising its fares,” Holbrook said, adding that rather than increasing the viability of the ferry service, this has led to an economic tipping point and placed stress on ferry-dependent communities.
The ferry cost actively acts as a deterrent for visitors, says Holbrook.
“It costs $65 for a car with two adults and two children. Why would you pay so much for a family outing if you can get to Whistler or Pemberton for the price of gas?”
Another issue the advisory committee is trying to address is the upcoming midlife refit of the Bowen ferry.
“The Queen of Capilano is 25, 26 years old and is approaching the mid life refit in January 2015,” Holbrook said. He explained that according to BC Ferries, there are only three other vessels in the fleet with a capacity comparable to or larger than the Queen of Capilano that will fit into Snug Cove and they are in regular use on other routes.
“What BC Ferries has done in the past is that it’s provided a smaller replacement vessel, the Bowen Queen. Last year, the resulting overloads and delays caused major economic hardship for Bowen residents,” Holbrook said. The committee has asked BC Ferries to share its plans in advance and sees a replacement with a vessel of this capacity for at least five months as not acceptable.
“This specific issue is symptomatic of a much greater concern and that is that BC Ferries can unilaterally throttle this place,” Holbrook said. He believes that more affordable ferry services are called for to provide access to jobs and schooling, as well as health care services. And the ferries need to link up with bus services.
“We are looking for a seamless system to downtown but the problem is that the ferry is irregular. There are rules about which ferry goes into what berth in Horseshoe Bay. For a trip downtown on public transportation, you need a lot of time,” he said.
Holbrook believes that alternatives for getting on and off the island are needed and mentioned commercial water taxis and barges. He also stressed the need for a “real health evacuation plan.”