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What the additional $500M in BC Ferries funding means for the future of coastal ferry travel

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

Today BC Premier David Eby announced $500 million in funding allocated to BC Ferries for the purpose of maintaining “reliable and affordable ferry service” for the province. The amount is intended to offset the projected fare increases of around 10 percent per year and reduce them to around 3 percent annually.

This funding announcement has implications beyond taxpayer dollars. No doubt the funding will help to control costs for all those who access the car ferry system with their vehicle. But it’s a significant amount to spend on upholding a status quo that doesn’t provide ferry users with any additional benefits. For coastal travel, we will still be dependent on car ferry infrastructure that was established in the 1960s on the basis that everyone has a car, diesel was cheap, and crew were abundantly available. None of these things are true anymore. For a growing number of people in and around metro Vancouver, that infrastructure is out of touch with how they live and move around today, using flexible and connected modes of transit. This new injection of funding is a deterrent for those ready to do things a new way – for example, developing a system of low-or no-emissions passenger-only ferries to complement the car ferry system.

The existing coastal ferry system needs to change. The annual emissions from the coastal car ferry system today is 50% more than the combined emissions of every provincial ministry and every BC crown corporation. The annual greenhouse gas emissions output of any one single car ferry is roughly equivalent to its own weight. For a limited set of the smaller short-run ferries, converting them to all-electric is a good option, and preparatory work is underway now to allow those vessels to charge from shore. But for the large car ferries that provide the main links between the lower mainland and Vancouver Island, there’s really no good option to reduce emissions in the short term. Electrification of that fleet might be possible, but it’s going to come with a huge cost to install massive batteries, as well as shore power, and begs the question – does BC have other options?

Opportunity for Modal Shift

We need to think bigger than propping up a car ferry system that cannot possibly be simultaneously affordable, reliable, green, and economical for taxpayers. Why not choose to grow the existing ferry system around the specific strengths and challenges of clean fuels rather than attempting to replicate the legacy diesel infrastructure? Why not take this opportunity to build our future ferry infrastructure to address the specific challenges of the day – climate change, equity & inclusion, housing affordability, the labour shortage, and reconciliation?

The Coastal Ferry Act of 2003 was designed to perpetuate continual renewal of a system of car ferries, and the funding announcement shows an extension of that system today. What we are missing is a modal shift. We are missing the opportunity to expand coastal ferries in a way that will signal we are equipped for the urgent challenges we face today with our best toolkit – with one important tool being passenger-only ferry service. Under the right conditions, we could look forward to a flexible system of all-electric passenger-only ferries that connect communities with each other and allow passengers to seamlessly access onward modes of transportation. In other words, a coastal ferry system focused on people, not just cars.

Today’s announcement may mean a few extra dollars in ferry users’ pockets, which is a good thing. But it also signals that we are locked into a car ferry system that will be greatly challenged in adapting to a climate crisis and that is growing increasingly out of touch with how people live and move around in BC.

from BC Archives, Unloading Cars From The Queen Of Prince Rupert, 1966


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