By R. Bruce Striegler

”There’s a bit of history Nanaimo has had with a passenger-only, high-speed ferry service to downtown Vancouver,” says Bernie Dumas, President & CEO of Nanaimo Port Authority. Three times in the past decade, attempts have been made by various private-sector operators to provide such a service, all of which failed for an assortment of reasons. “The population has been pushing for a passenger-only service for some years,” Dumas notes. This despite the two BC Ferry terminals that serve the city with multiple daily sailings to Vancouver-area terminals. Nevertheless, at the end of March 2016, the Port of Nanaimo and the City of Nanaimo in conjunction with Snuneymuxw First Nation issued an Expression of Interest to secure an operator for a high-speed passenger ferry service, downtown to downtown, between the two cities.

Bill Corsan, manager of real estate for the City of Nanaimo explains “We’ve had various operators approach the City about establishing such a service. We want to proceed with utmost transparency, going out to the market asking for expressions of interest by potential fast ferry operators.” Nanaimo, a city of 87,500 people is located on the east coast of Vancouver Island, 113 km north of Victoria, and 55 km across the Salish Sea (Strait of Georgia) from Vancouver. Known as the “harbour city” because of its large protected natural harbour, the city has become a key Vancouver Island transportation hub. The City is seeking to attract new businesses and their employees, in addition to people from B.C.’s lower mainland nearing retirement age wanting to downsize to Nanaimo. As well as being a transportation hub for Vancouver Island, with a new cruise ship dock in one of British Columbia’s deepest ports and an airport that has had five years of record passenger growth, the town has a growing technology sector.

Details of service to be negotiated with winning bid

The prospective operator is being offered a choice of two sites; one is through the Port Authority on the new dock facility constructed in 2011to accommodate cruise ships. Existing infrastructure can be adapted to handle two or more ferry vessels while the existing terminal would offer space for ticket kiosks and passenger waiting areas. The second site is a City-owned waterfront lot located adjacent to the downtown and next to port land. The lot is part of a larger waterfront revitalization project which may include a multimodal transportation hub. Temporary surface parking may be available to proponents, who will be responsible for identifying and securing a location for their Vancouver operations. Schedule details, fares and sailing frequency will be developed with the winning proponent, although Dumas notes that they expect more than three round trips per day.

Both Bernie Dumas and Bill Corsan say that local politicians, business leaders and residents want a high speed, frequent and reliable service which would enable residents of Nanaimo to commute to Vancouver on a regular basis. It will also help to bolster tourism in the Nanaimo and the Central Vancouver Island Region creating a fast and cost effective transportation alternative for Lower Mainland residents and tourists to access Vancouver Island. Mr. Dumas says he is “hopeful” an operator will be found. “We’ve had site visits already from interested parties, but this is a very capital intensive business.” He says that although they are not operating to a specific timeframe, they are looking at a start date in 2017, although, “If a carrier says they may need more time to find appropriate ships, we will work with that operator.” Currently, BC Ferries on the mainland sails to Nanaimo from two different places; Horseshoe Bay which is about 22 km from downtown Vancouver, and its terminal at Tsawwassen, 17 km south of downtown Vancouver. The proposed new service will run downtown to downtown.