By Keith Norbury
B.C. Ferry Services Inc., which operates 47 ferry terminals on coastal B.C., plans to spend $1.1 billion upgrades to those facilities over the next 12 years. That’s 27 per cent of a $3.9 billion capital plan that B.C. Ferry Commission signed off on in late 2018. It’s also significantly more than the 21.4 per cent of the capital total of $2.915 billion allocated in the preceding 12-year capital plan from fiscal 2004 to 2018.
In bringing those plans to fruition, the ferry corporation will take into account anticipated and emerging trends in transportation such as driverless vehicles, ride-hailing, improvements in transit, as well as diminishing interest in car ownership among younger generations. Those are all points ferry corporation President and CEO Mark Collins touched upon in a recent interview. “We consider ourselves right now to be engaged in planning the coastal marine transport system for B.C. for the middle half of the 21st century,” Mr. Collins said.
While B.C. Ferries has no plans to build any new terminals, it does anticipate major expansions at several terminals, said a spokesperson for the corporation. That includes expanding waiting rooms and holding compounds and improving site layout to enable smoother and safer movement of passengers and vehicles.
The bulk of the $1.1 billion will be for “significant terminal development projects” at major terminals at Horseshoe Bay on the B.C. mainland and at Swartz Bay, near Victoria on Vancouver Island, as well at Langdale terminal, which serves the Sunshine Coast north of Vancouver. “We have some (work) underway already,” Mr. Collins said. “It’s not a lot of shovels in the ground yet but there’s an awful lot of preplanning to go into these things.”
B.C. Ferries is also planning work on many of its smaller terminals, such as those on various Gulf Islands that provide lifelines to Vancouver Island and the mainland. That includes a program to standardize the berths at all the small terminals so they can all handle vessels of up to Salish class size, capable of carrying 238 cars.
Like any Vancouver Islander, Victoria transportation analyst Darryl Anderson knows well the importance to Islanders of B.C.’s coastal ferry system, which is one of the largest in the world. Overall, Mr. Anderson gives B.C. Ferries high marks for its plans to modernize the system and adapt to changes in the transportation landscape. “B.C. Ferries is very, very astute to recognizing that we’re not at a point where you clearly can say that the traffic is going to go X or Y,” said Mr. Anderson, Managing Partner of Wave Point Consulting. “But what they’re really thinking about is the vessels and terminals and how do we build flexibility.”
As far as the major projects go, first up will be the Langdale terminal on the Sunshine Coast, five kilometres from Gibsons, best known as the location of the iconic Canadian TV series “The Beachcombers”. Mr. Collins expects shovels in the ground this fall at Langdale. It will be a complete rebuild, with a new passenger building, overhead loading walkway, reconfigured terminal compound, and new ticketing facilities. “That’ll probably run for a good 18 months once construction starts in the fall,” Mr. Collins said.
An even bigger project awaits at Horseshoe Bay, which connects Langdale with Greater Vancouver and is also one of two major terminals providing service to Vancouver Island, the other being at Tsawwassen, 35 kilometres south of downtown Vancouver. Mr. Collins said the Horseshoe Bay berths are so antiquated and of such outdated technology that they hamper “operational efficiency.”
Public consultation key
The ferry corporation is in the early stages of concept building at Horseshoe Bay, which will involve a lot of public consultation. “Because we are so integrated with that community, anything we do is going to be an enormous impact on the population there,” Mr. Collins said.
A similar consultation phase is underway for the Swartz Bay terminal, 30 kilometres north of Victoria near the tip of the Saanich Peninsula. The berths at Swartz Bay, however, are largely in good shape with three of them — 2, 4, and 5 — having been rebuilt about a decade ago. Berths 1 and 2, meanwhile were “mid-lifed,” meaning they won’t need work for “a long time,” although berth 3 will probably come up for renewal in about 15 years.
“What we’re talking about at Swartz Bay is reconfiguring the buildings,” Mr. Collin said. While those are potentially big projects, they won’t involve the disruptions of pile-driving or blasting. “So we should be able to carry out the work at Swartz Bay without unduly disrupting the population around us,” Mr. Collins said. Nor will the Swartz Bay work “interrupt our operational tempo,” he said. That’s unlike at Horseshoe Bay, where removing one of the three berths in order to replace it would reduce the terminal’s capacity by a third.
Tsawwassen is a bigger terminal but Horseshoe Bay handles more sailings each day with two fewer berths, Mr. Collins said. “It’s a very intense terminal and anything we do over there is going to entail some disruption to ferry users unfortunately,” Mr. Collins said of Horseshoe Bay.
Horseshoe Bay challenges
He anticipates that upgrades to Horseshoe Bay will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars because of the huge amount of civil works involved in replacing those three berths and in reconfiguring the road networks. “One of the biggest challenges at Horseshoe Bay is simply we can’t load and unload two ships at the same time. That’s a real operational constraint for us,” Mr. Collins said. For that reason, the ferry corporation is looking for the Horseshoe Bay improvements “to build resilience into that terminal,” he said. And that means blasting, road building, concrete pouring and other “heavy duty stuff” that is “very expensive to do.” The holy grail for Horseshoe Bay is to be able to handle two ships at a time, which Mr. Collins says, will greatly improve efficiency.
The ferry corporation’s Sept. 28, 2018 submission of its Performance Term Five capital plan, a.k.a. PT5, notes that the capital plan flows from various master plans. The PT5 submission also references a network master plan. B.C. Ferries could not provide a copy of the master plan, saying that it contains commercially sensitive information. Mr. Collins said that aside from the financial implications, the master plan also reveals the order of the projects. “What we’re trying to do is not show our hand too much to the construction community because we go out for competitive bids,” he said.
According to figures from B.C. Ferries, the corporation will spend $47 million on capital projects at the terminals in 2019, out of $360 million in total capital expenditures. Annual capital spending on terminals rises to $84 million in 2020 and stays around that level until 2024, when it hits $113 million. An even bigger spike — to $190 million — is projected for 2027, before dropping to $62 million in 2028, rising again to $101 million in 2029, and then tapering off to $67 in 2030, the final year of the capital plan.
B.C. Ferries, which since 2003 has been an independent corporation that ostensibly operates at arm’s length from the provincial government, recently secured $17 million from the federal government’s New Canada Fund for the Langdale terminal project. Mr. Collins said he didn’t know at present if any more federal government money is coming to help with other planned capital expenditures.
In formulating its capital plans, the ferry corporation has even taken into account the freight part of its business, including a drop-trailer service that it initiated about a decade ago. As the term implies, the service includes truckers dropping trailers at a ferry terminal where tractors owned by the ferry corporation haul them onboard and then drop them off on the other side. “We see the trend in the commercial business toward drop trailer,” Mr. Collins said. “We understand the pressures that truckers are feeling, that truck companies are feeling. It’s hard to get drivers. Hours of work is an issue. And having the tractor and the driver sitting on a ferry is maybe not productive enough for them. So we see the trend towards drop trailers and we’re certainly preparing for that future.”
The company’s total commercial business is about $100 million in revenue annually, with drop trailers a part of that. “We are not the biggest drop trailer service, though,” Collins said. Seaspan Intermodal competes with B.C. Ferries for that business, and has argued that the ferry corporation’s drop-trailer service represented unfair competition because of government subsidies B.C. Ferries receives. However, in 2013, the B.C. Court of Appeal dismissed Seaspan’s appeal of a B.C. Ferries Commissioner ruling on the matter.
Asked to comment on that, Mr. Collins said B.C. Ferries has a “serious competitive relationship” with Seaspan, which Collins said is also increasing its capacity. (Canadian Sailings reported in September 2017 that Seaspan’s drop-trailer business was “thriving.”) “But we too are looking at expansion of our capacity because we continue to have much more demand than we can possibly service,” Mr. Collins said.
Night sailings proposed
So how does Ferries plan to increase that business if it’s constrained for space at its terminals? One way is to have more sailings. Another is to reconfigure the terminals in response to changing traffic patterns that might emerge from, say, the use of autonomous vehicles, ride hailing, increased transit, and even the trend toward fewer younger people owning and driving their own vehicles.
“And in the very long term as that change unfolds, we can’t be sure, of course, but we can see a future where a reduction in the number of passenger vehicles frees up space for us to devote that to freight traffic, which is a good thing,” Mr. Collins said. Another option is to run more sailings with smaller loads. “And then, of course, there’s always the overnight hours. There’s no reason why we can’t operate overnight,” Mr. Collins said later.
Mr. Anderson said, “I could see the corporation making changes to the terminal configuration to allow some of those other lanes that are held for commercial vehicles for at-night drop off.” However, if B.C. Ferries runs overnight sailings primarily for commercial vehicles, it could again run into criticism that it is subsidizing that service and giving it an uncompetitive advantage against the private carrier Seaspan. “So the issue doesn’t go away,” Mr. Anderson said.
Swartz Bay options
At Swartz Bay, proposals include replacing the Lands End Cafe building, originally constructed in 1959 about the time the terminal first went into service and last updated in 2005, as well as installing a seaside boardwalk. Mr. Collins said the “upland facilities” at Swartz Bay are showing their age. So the ferry corporation is looking at more retail choices for customers, such as a convenience store, or even personal services like haircuts and car detailing. Another possibility is a mini mall similar to what’s already in place at Tsawwassen. “What we need to do is survey the customers and say, ‘What are the things that you are looking for while you’re waiting for your ferry?’” Mr. Collins said. “Although I’m not trying to suggest that there’s more waiting ahead. What I am saying is that waiting is an inevitable part of getting on a ferry, and how can we make the customer experience the most enjoyable and practical for them.”
How the revenue would be collected hasn’t been decided. B.C. Ferries could rent to a master tenant, which would then deal with individual retailers. That’s the present case at Tsawwassen. Or the ferry corporation could be its own master tenant, or even run the stores as B.C. Ferries outlets.
More foot traffic foreseen
One trend Mr. Collins does foresee at the major terminals is expansion of foot-passenger facilities, which are often crowded. But rather than provide separate services for foot and vehicle passengers as is the case today, Mr. Collins envisions merging the two streams. “So you have a concourse which can serve both populations of travellers,” Mr. Collins said.
At Swartz Bay, foot passengers now often arrive by car and park in massive lots on the terminals grounds. On holiday weekends, those lots often fill up. Mr. Collins acknowledged that parking space can be an issue. But the ferry corporation has no plans to build a parking garage at Swartz Bay. “Parking structures are extremely expensive,” Mr. Collins said. He would rather solve the problem through increases in transit usage and ride-hailing. “Put the two of those together and you could have a very interesting confluence in transportation,” Mr. Collins said. “Imagine a ferry system where very few people are taking their personal vehicles. Instead, they’re ride-hailing a lovely luxury car to come pick them up that takes them to the ferry terminal; and then on the other side, they’ve got another luxury car waiting for them.”
One place where a parking garage is already in use is at Horseshoe Bay, the terminal most constrained by geography. The corporation is in the midst of planning and community consultation on Horseshoe Bay’s future.
Another plan for Swartz Bay is to increase its warehouse capacity but also move the warehouse from the waterfront further inland on the terminal property. The Swartz Bay warehouse not only provisions the ferries based out of Swartz Bay with food and retail supplies, but also for the vast majority of the stores for the Tsawwassen-based ships.
Plans for minor terminals
The major terminals, which carry the bulk of B.C. Ferries traffic and generate the most revenue, will receive most of the capital work over the next 12 years. However, smaller terminals, especially on the Gulf Islands, represent crucial transportation links for residents of those islands. “They are lifeline services that we offer on these small communities and there’s nothing more important than a lifeline,” Mr. Collins said.
For example, a wind storm in late 2018 severely damaged the terminal on Penelekut Island, putting it out of commission for three weeks as B.C. Ferries mounted an around-the-clock effort to repair it.
Among the minor terminals earmarked for rebuilds are Vesuvius Bay on Salt Spring Island, its Vancouver Island link at Crofton — both built in the 1960s — and at Blubber Bay on Texada Island, the largest of the Gulf Islands. All those projects on the small terminals will result in standard-sized berths capable of handling any ferries up to an intermediate-size 238-car Salish class vessel. That opens up the prospect of eventually running larger ships on routes such as the one serving Texada Island, Mr. Collins said.
Standardization also provides much more operational flexibility in the event of a ship breaking down. The old terminals were basically custom-built for one class of ship so couldn’t handle a vessel of a different size.
“It’s kind of hard to write it down on paper and show the accountants what the value is,” Mr. Collins said. “But the very first time you take an intermediate vessel in there because you can, and you’re back filling for a broken-down vessel, you’ve just got it all back.”
Looking ahead to 2075
Overall, the ferry corporation is tasked with planning what the transportation landscape will look like in the latter part of the 21st century. “Ships that we build today will be operating until 2075,” Mr. Collin said. B.C. Ferries is thinking about how it will serve his grandchildren. “Someday we might all be flying back and forth to Vancouver in drones. But the tires, the groceries, the building materials, the steel is still going to come to and from the Island by ship,” Mr. Collins said. So he can envision a transformation in the ferry service similar to what happened with the post office after the introduction of electronic mail all but eliminated letter mail.
Should ride-hailing services like Uber — which the B.C. government is still in the process of enabling — and autonomous vehicles become so popular that few people own cars, B.C. Ferries will have to “future-proof” the terminals. That means converting space now reserved for waiting passenger cars into pick-up and drop-off zones for foot passengers. “We aren’t building a ferry system for ourselves,” Mr. Collins said. “We’re building a ferry system for the people and communities that we serve.”