There may not be a B.C. government file that has become more politicized in recent months than transportation. Whether it's trying to forge a comprehensive transit plan for Metro Vancouver or finding ways to reduce the costs of operating the BC Ferries fleet, decision-making has become centralized in the Minister of Transportation's office – unquestionably to the detriment of effective policy-making.
Take the recent decision to abandon an idea hatched by BC Ferries to shut down the Departure Bay terminal near Nanaimo and eliminate the service between Nanaimo and Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver; undoubtedly a controversial decision. Moves to save money usually are.
The ferry corporation is under enormous pressure from government – and its customers – to halt fare increases. The corporation needs $45-million over four years to keep the rate of increase at 2 per cent. The Departure Bay plan would have gone a long way toward achieving those savings.
At first, Transportation Minister Todd Stone supported public consultations on the idea, recognizing the fiscal pressures the ferry corporation is under. But 24 hours later, he reversed course, after getting pressure from a couple of Liberal MLAs whose ridings would have been negatively affected by the proposed route cut.
And this, folks, is how major government policy decisions are made in B.C. It's hard to overstate how wrong this move by Mr. Stone is on so many levels.
Firstly, the ferry corporation is supposed to be an independent body with the authority to make decisions on how best to run the service. If we didn't know before, we know now: the notion that the ferry corporation has real autonomy is a joke. It is being run out of the Transportation Minister's office. Mr. Stone didn't even have the decency to inform BC Ferries president Mike Corrigan about the decision; he told the media first. Nice way to find out.
Mr. Corrigan was rightfully annoyed. He was not only blindsided, but left with both hands tied behind his back when it comes to finding money in the system to keep fares low. The major routes account for 80 per cent of the company's costs. If you want to find substantial savings, you have to make cuts on the major routes.
(If I may, the public deserves some of the blame here, too. People whine and complain about high ferry fares, and then whine and complain when the company proposes to cut services to help keep fares in pace with inflation. Now, when the corporation has to raise fares because it wasn't able to make the savings, people will whine and complain some more).
It's not only the ferry corporation the provincial government is jerking around when it comes to transportation. We've also seen it when it comes to transit in Metro Vancouver. The region's mayors are supposed to have some authority over transit planning, but really they have none. The provincial government calls the shots. It was the province that forced a referendum on the mayors to get approval for a $7.5-billion transit strategy in the region. But the government gets to approve what financial instruments the mayors can use to raise money for its plan. So far, it's done a better job of telling the mayors what they can't use than what they can.
The referendum process has been so rushed it's hard to imagine the plan getting the approval of voters. In the United States, such plebiscites often take years of planning to succeed. The one in B.C. has been thrown together in haste, and proponents will be able to campaign for maybe only a few months before ballots must be marked.
Who plans major infrastructure investment this way? If you put together a group of top strategic planners and engineers and asked what is the most effective way to formulate cohesive transportation, the way the B.C. government is proceeding would likely be the last option anyone would consider.
Right now, transportation policy in the province is a mess. And the people using the system, and those trying to make it work, deserve better from the government.