Gabriola passenger ferry service a possibility

Western Pacific Marine Ltd. is conducting a feasibility study on the possibility of offering a passenger-only ferry service to Gabriola Island, in the wake of a controversial proposal to cut routes to the island. Significant service cuts aimed at reducing costs to B.C. Ferries are in the works for Gabriola and other secondary ferry routes effective April 1, according to a set of "guiding principals" released by the B.C. Transportation Ministry Nov. 18.

For Gabriola Islanders it could mean no ferries after 9 p.m. daily, and elimination of the first morning sailing on weekends. "We have a vessel that is available to us that's currently underemployed, and if B.C. Ferries carries through on April 1 with their cut of over 1,000 runs, we may have a business opportunity there, and we'd like to take advantage of it," said Capt. Elgin McKillop, marine superintendent with Western Pacific. The aluminum passenger vessel has a 40-passenger capacity and could complete the route one way in 12 to 14 minutes.

"Until the highway was built into Gingolx on the North Coast, it was the ferry there," said McKillop. The ferry service would be privately operated, he added, though Western Pacific currently operates a ferry service to Lasqueti Island under contract with B.C. Ferries. The current plan is to gather all the financial information available and conduct some projections, said McKillop.

However they are also waiting to see what the final decision is from the Transportation Ministry and B.C. Ferries before they make any definitive moves. Assessing the interest in supporting a third-party operator to pick up the slack, in the event of service reductions, was part of the information being sought by the Transportation Ministry during their recent consultations, said B.C. Ferries spokeswoman Deborah Marshall. "It looks like Western Marine is looking at that opportunity, and we would think that would be a great idea," said Marshall. Though it may be a helpful plan if services are cut, there are other factors to consider, said Steven Earle, chairman of the Gabriola Transportation Advisory Committee. "I think we really need to be careful about giving up our B.C. Ferries service in the hopes that we'll get it replaced by something else," said Earle. "We don't know what something like that is going to cost, it might be more expensive than what we have now." Many people that use the evening and early morning runs need to have a vehicle, he said, citing Gabriola's sizable agricultural community, who need access to farmers markets off-island for their livelihood. A consultation summary report from the Transportation Ministry on the upcoming cuts is expected shortly.