Ferry commissioner Gord Macatee announced on Thursday that despite opposition from community members he has approved funding for the project, a necessary step under the Coastal Ferry Act.
But he also wouldn't release the cost of the two berths and the ferry, which will serve the route between Buckley Bay, which is located about an hour's drive north of Nanaimo, B.C., and Denman Island, which is located to the east in the Salish Sea.
"It's our normal procedure so that we don't put the company at a disadvantage when it's doing its final contract negotiations, having the other side know the allowed amount," said Macatee. "But we do release the amount as soon as the contract's completed."
He said the project is going ahead, despite public opposition, because he must consider the interests of all ferry users on all routes, as well as the interests of the taxpayers.
The cable ferry will provide reliable service at reduced operating costs, he added, noting it will save the service about $2 million annually.
He said that savings opportunity, if passed on, would result in higher fares, and when he reviewed the Coastal Ferry Act in 2011, he heard from more than 2,000 people, many of whom told him they wanted the commission to focus on constraining fares.
"That's why we've made this decision," he said.
Peter Luckham, chair of the Denman Island Local Trust Committee, a body of elected officials that operates much like a municipal council, said a "substantial number" of people in the community are not satisfied the service is being changed. He said they don't think it's in their best interests and are still concerned about engineering, safety, reliability and efficiency.
"Well, I think that a good number of people on Denman Island are not gong to be happy because they don't feel that a cable ferry is going to serve their needs in terms of reliability," he said, adding there will be continued opposition.
New Democratic transportation critic Claire Trevena, who is the North Island MLA, said the announcement affects two islands. She said people have to travel to Denman Island to get to Hornby Island, and she's surprised the decision was made in the face of public opposition.
Trevena said she attended a public meeting that was packed, even though it was held on a summer evening.
"It seems that this was really a done deal from almost the start," she said.
Chris Abbott, provincial president of the BC Ferry & Marine Workers' Union, said in an email statement that the communities of Denman and Hornby Islands filed petitions against the project, and they attended "consultation" meetings only to be ignored.
"Even though BC Ferries is owned by the province, the commissioner’s office can and will do as it sees fit or as the government directs regardless of community opposition," he said.
Abbott questioned whether the announcement was a surprise, saying the ferry commissioner mandated BC Ferries to look into using cable ferries.
A Dec. 20, 2013 application to Macatee from BC Ferries stated the new vessel, which will replace the Quinitsa, a nearly 80-metre-long ship built in 1977, will be powered by a hydraulic motor and will run along three submerged cables.
The application states BC Ferries will then be able to use the Quinitsa on several minor routes, a move that will allow the service to retire another vessel in the fleet without replacement.
The application also states the 1.9-kilometre route will be one of the longest operations of its kind, a fact Macatee said he was advised of by the marine architect.
Macatee also said the conditions of the sea bottom, not the length of the cable, are what's important, and the marine architect advised him the conditions are smooth and the slope and depth are appropriate.
Mark Wilson, vice-president of engineering for BC Ferries, said the design of the ferry and its terminal are complete and the company will finalize the contracts over the coming weeks.
He said construction on the vessel and marine- and land-based infrastructure should take about 12 months, after which the service will begin two to three months of trials.
Wilson said he expects the service to be operational by May 2015.
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