North Coast MLA Gary Coons says our northern ferries are rapidly approaching the point where they will be unsafe, and he’s wondering why the provincial government isn’t telling us what it plans to do about it.
“Obviously they need to be replaced,” Mr. Coons said about the Queen of Prince Rupert and Queen of the North, which were built in 1966 and 1969 and serve the routes between Skidegate, Prince Rupert and Port Hardy. The government “should have jumped all over it right now.”
Mr. Coons said he doesn’t think islanders are risking their lives by taking the ferry, but pointed out that Transport Canada is introducing new safety regulations which these two ferries, as well as the Queen of Chilliwack, can’t meet. (The Queen of Chilliwack serves a summer route between Port Hardy and Bella Coola.)
The biggest problem is that the vessels have single compartments that could fill with water if the hull is breached, Mr. Coons said. Newer vessels have multiple compartments which make them more stable if water gets in.
BC Ferry Services Inc. has come up with a strategy outlining how it intends to serve the northern runs in the future, but the government says it is confidential and Mr. Coons said his repeated requests for a copy have been turned down.
Meanwhile, the MLA said he is looking forward to a report from the auditor-general looking into the governance of the ferry system, which is supposed to be released at the end of March.
BC Ferry Services told islanders last summer that it is looking for private contractors to take over the northern routes, as part of the research to see if there is a cheaper alternative to the three new vessels, which are expected to cost around $350-million. Mr. Coons said he heard that BC Ferry Services officials were supposed to be taking two interested companies on a tour of the northern route last week, but the trip had been delayed.
Deborah Marshall, director of media relations at BC Ferry Services, said the three northern vessels are completely safe. However, she confirmed that Transport Canada is changing its regulations in 2012 to require these types of vessels to have multiple compartments instead of single compartment hulls.
Because of the new regulations, BC Ferry Services is planning to replace the Queen of Prince Rupert in 2009, the Queen of the North in 2010 and the Queen of Chilliwack in 2011, she said.
However, the company hasn’t started advertising the ship-building contract yet because it is still waiting to hear from the provincial government about how much money it will contribute to the expected $350-million bill. If the provincial government doesn’t cover the entire cost, the rest may have to be made up by increased fares.
BC Ferry Services is also obligated, by its contract with the provincial government, to seek alternative service providers, a process which is currently underway for the northern routes.
“We have to look and see if anybody can do it better,” Ms Marshall said.
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