BC Ferries will be advertising around the world to see if another ferry company can run its northern routes more efficiently, including Skidegate-Prince Rupert and Skidegate-Alliford Bay.
The advertising campaign is set to start this month, director of business development Mark Leidemann explained to a small group of islanders in Queen Charlotte July 21. The entire “alternative service providers process” will take until March 2007 to complete, he said, unless the first stage reveals that no other companies are interested.
Under the Coastal Ferry Act, BC Ferries is required to look for other service providers, Mr. Leidemann said, although the act does not specifically say how or when it must do so, or for which routes. In this case, the provincial government has asked BC Ferries to see if another company can operate the northern routes more efficiently before it goes makes the decision to spend an estimated $360-million on three new ferries for these routes.
“The reason we’re going through this now is the three ships that operate in the north are old,” he said. “We need to look at replacing those ships now.”
Two other routes which need new ferries – Mill Bay-Brentwood Bay and Powell River-Texada-Comox – will also be advertised.
As part of the complicated process, BC Ferries will be preparing its own bid to run the routes, Mr. Leidemann said.
Islanders at the meeting asked what other company could possibly run these routes. Mr. Leidemann replied that there are many ferry companies in the world, especially in Europe, which may be interested, although he admitted that BC Ferries has the benefit of a highly-trained labour force and maintenance facilities. In addition, BC Ferries pays no federal or provincial income tax.
“We have built-in advantages but it doesn’t exempt us from going through this process,” he said.
In response to other questions, Mr. Leidemann said the provincial government has not yet determined the level of service and the term of the contract, but “it’s kind of the expectation that the level of service will not be less than what is provided now.”
However, BC Ferries won’t be providing specifics about service levels until further on in the process. The first stage, scheduled to take place between now and October, is a request for expressions of interest, to see if any companies are interested. If they are, the next stage is a request for qualifications, which will result in a shortlist by May 2006, according to Mr. Leidemann’s timeline. The final stage will be a request for proposals, where the companies will submit bids on providing the service, which should wrap up by March 2007.
Regional district director Carol Kulesha, who also sits on the BC Ferries stakeholders committee, said she was concerned about the time frame. BC Ferries has repeatedly told the communities that the Queen of Prince Rupert and Queen of the North will reach the end of their service life by 2010.
But Mr. Leidemann said it should be possible to go through this process and still put new ferries on the routes by 2010, if it ends up that BC Ferries remains the service provider.
Ms Kulesha also wanted to know what would happen to BC Ferries employees if a different company took over. Mr. Leidemann said any new company would have a choice of hiring BC Ferries workers or its own labour. If it hired its own labour, the out-of-work ferries workers would be able to bump other employees throughout the rest of the system.
Graham Evenson asked whether companies will have to bid on all the northern routes, or if they could bid on only the Kwuna route, for example. Mr. Leidemann said he is interested in hearing from anyone, and will look for chances to partner companies – for example a big company from Europe might be interested in working with a smaller local company.
Mr. Leidemann said he will be back on the islands throughout the process to give the communities updates. Several islanders said they would appreciate receiving more than just a few hours notice of these meetings, and Gary Leitch, BC Ferries manager of stakeholder relations and consultation communications, said he will do better next time.
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