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British Columbia's Liberal government sold its fleet of three fast ferries yesterday for $20-million, a huge markdown from the cost to the taxpayers of $454-million.

The sleek PacificCat catamarans -- dubbed the Ferraris of the nautical world for their premium-priced interior fittings -- were sold at auction to Washington Marine Group, the Montana-based company that built the ferries in British Columbia for B.C. Ferry Corporation.

The final price for the vessels was significantly below an estimate of their scrap value -- $30-million -- and their book value of $70-million. An Indonesian group was reported to have considered making a $60-million offer for the vessels.

The auction, which lasted only 10 minutes, was the most recent episode in a bitter political controversy that has raged over the past decade in British Columbia.

The ferries became a highly visible symbol of government waste, ineptitude and extravagance, dragging down the former New Democratic Party government and contributing to their defeat at the polls two years ago.

The bargain-basement price for the ferries sparked a new round of political finger-pointing yesterday, once again raising questions about the provincial government's business acumen -- only this time, it was the Liberals, not the NDP, under attack.

"This is a sad day for B.C.," George MacPherson, president of the B.C. Shipyard General Workers' Federation, said.

The government was "just playing politics," he said. "We gave away almost $450-million. We think there were other options."

Mr. MacPherson said the new owners may resell the vessels at a significantly higher price.

"If these three fast ferries are bought for a song today and flipped for millions more shortly thereafter, the government and B.C. Ferries management have a lot of explaining to do to B.C. taxpayers," Mr. MacPherson said.

Premier Gordon Campbell agreed that the price was abysmally low. But he shifted the blame for the fiasco squarely on to the former NDP government.

"The incompetence of the previous government was shown in a number of ways. This happens to be one of the most glaring ways, one of the most obvious ways," Mr. Campbell told reporters in Victoria.

"Our job was to try and minimize the losses from this financial debacle," he said. "We should all be clear. These boats should never have been built. They didn't make any sense."

Doug Allen, interim president of the B.C. Ferry Corporation, told reporters he was "very happy" with the outcome of the auction.

The government-owned ferry corporation, which is to become a private company next month, had a worldwide search for buyers, hired the best auctioneer to sell the vessels and attracted seven bidders to the auction, he said.

The bidders set the market price, he added. "What you see is what it is," Mr. Allen said.

"Our goal was to sell the fast ferries and that's precisely what's been done," he said. "I'm very happy we brought [the process]to a close and got market price."

The potential offer of $60-million was never finalized, he also said, adding that the ferry corporation did not prepare estimates of scrap value for the boats.

Former NDP premier Glen Clark in 1994 said the three ferries would cost $210-million. By the time the first vessel was completed in 1999, the cost had doubled.

The vessels also had operational problems. They could not run if the waves were more than 2.5-metres high and could not carry as many buses and trucks as conventional ferries.

B.C. Transportation Minister Judith Reid said the previous NDP government turned down an $88-million offer prior to the last provincial election in May, 2001.

The auction was held at Vancouver's cruise ship terminal behind closed doors. Randy Wall, president of Ritchie Brothers Auctioneers, said the auction was private to protect the identity of bidders and to protect the bidding process from interference.

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