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Public in the dark about ferry changes

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There's a strong impression the government has something dramatic in mind for some of the major ferry routes.
It's just not clear what it is yet. And it's no clearer after Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Todd Stone's media appearance Friday.
The ministry scheduled it to talk speed limits. But it segued quickly to the ferries, an issue that is still boiling after last week's announcement that big service reductions are coming next year.
Desperate to keep fare increases under control, the government announced sailing cuts on several routes and an end to free rides for seniors.
The key point about last week's announcement is that all the cuts were on the minor and northern routes.
The major routes between Vancouver Island and the mainland were left out of the picture - for the time being. B.C. Ferries has whittled $4 million out of operating costs there since 2012.
But under the financial projections the company and the government are working on, an additional $5 million needs to be chopped out of the cost of those major routes by 2016.
And Stone said he wants to go above and beyond that. The specific focus is on the two routes from the Nanaimo area: Departure Bay to Horseshoe Bay and Duke Point to Tsawwassen.
"As major capital investment is considered for Horseshoe Bay, analysis will continue on opportunities to achieve additional savings and efficiencies," the ministry said.
The Horseshoe Bay terminal is on the schedule for a upgrade that is budgeted at more than $200 million. (Last week it was cited as a $200-million factor, but on Friday Stone said it could be more than $250 million.) Addressing some confusion about whether that means one of the Nanaimo area terminals could be closed, Stone said no.
"What I can say unequivocally to the people of Nanaimo and Vancouver Island is that there are no plans to close either of the terminals in Nanaimo."
But it doesn't sound as if the government is planning a business-as-usual approach at either terminal.
"I believe there are opportunities for further savings by looking at those two routes," Stone said. No specific changes have been determined yet.
But the looming quarter-billion-dollar upgrade at Horseshoe Bay stands tall. Are they examining ways that mountain can be climbed? Or are they considering whether it needs to be climbed at all? It looks like the latter.
The upcoming cost is "a terrific opportunity" to take a "long, hard look" at the service from both Nanaimo terminals, he said. "We're challenging the assumptions with respect to that terminal upgrade."
The closest he got to specifics was a mention of "different configurations" or smaller vessels. It looks as if any service cuts that would ease pressure on the Horseshoe Bay terminal and reduce the need for that upgrade will take precedence.
The problem is that it's only one of dozens of major projects that are in the planning stages. B.C. Ferries has $2.5 billion worth of capital projects on the drawing board.
Independent ferry commissioner Gordon Macatee criticized that plan last year, saying it's entirely based on doing things the same old way.
A conventional ferry needs to be replaced, so it's replaced with another conventional ferry, with no thought given to how things might change over the ship's 40-year life.
He rapped the company for not having a long-term vision or a valid forecast of long-term demand. It could be moving people to where they want to go, but it's moving cars between terminals that are far from where people want to be.
He also suggested his commission get authority over capital spending.
"A clear vision of where the ferry system should be going is important so we don't saddle our future with a fleet designed to serve the needs of the past," he said.
It looks as if that's what Stone is thinking about. It also looks as if he's not quite ready yet to talk about the inevitable disruption that adopting a new vision will cause.
Les Leyne covers the legislature for the Victoria Times Colonist.
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