The future of NL’s communities serviced by ferries is a political minefield. Depending on your viewpoint, the geographic dispersion represented by these communities is our curse, or our defining and cherished characteristic. Discussion on the topic often devolves into caricatures of townie versus baymen, our future and our past. On one side is the hypocrisy of one larger island telling smaller islands they have to move. Memories of Resettlement are not far behind, nor are phrases such as cultural genocide. On the other side is the cost borne by the province to maintain these remote communities, including transportation, health and education.
But the answer will not be found in the clash of ideology at the theoretical level. We need to consider each community and its own unique circumstances for both economic and moral reasons. There are practicalities to supporting groups of communities. In many cases a 20% reduction is services will not result in a 20% reduction in cost. And it’s also essential to see these communities as just that, communities where people live, work and ground themselves.
My grandfather and great-grandfather helped the last two residents on Iona move to Fox Harbour. Iona is a spec of rock not much bigger than a soccer pitch in the middle of Placentia Bay. Standing on it you wonder how winter storms didn’t roll right over it. But it had fishing grounds on its doorstep. And when you were under the power of oars, not engines, being close to the grounds made a big difference. Concerned the elderly couple might not make it through another winter, my family convinced they to move ashore, where the community saw they were taken care of.
Over in Bonavista Bay, I make an effort to stay a night every summer on Sailors Island, where the only remnant of the community is the cemetery. An elderly relative of mine was just a girl when the houses were hauled over. These families moved for different reasons. Some to provide a better life for their family. Some because the communities were dying. And others because they knew they where simply on their own.
David Blackwood – Hauling Job davidblackwood.com
When the reason for a community’s founding ceases to exist, should the community remain? Everyone has the right to choose where and how they live. But how far does society’s responsibility to support that choice go? What level of service should NLs remote communities expect and how should they be funded? Should ferries be similar in cost to road transportation (aka road equivalency), or should they be funded mostly through user fees? How do equity and equality apply? Should living in a remote community mean less services or more expensive services? Do we have a responsibility for equal supports or equity in outcomes?
No matter your personal standpoint on support of remote communities, there are some difficult facts about the transportation costs associated. For starters the annual Marine Operations budget for the province is $143 million ($6,100 per person served). To be clear this does not include Marine Atlantic, a federal budget responsibility. For context the annual cost of road maintenance and improvements for the province is $250 million ($470 per person served).
[Note: 09/02/16 The paragraph below has been edited to include data from Fogo/Change Islands]
Looking specifically at the island ferry system, the operating budget is $50 million and services 14 communities with 7,400 people at a cost per capita of over $6,700. Only 4 percent of the operating cost of ferries is recovered through fares, to say nothing of the capital cost of purchasing the ferries and terminals (another $50 million in 2015-16 alone). Cost recovery rates for other ferry systems in North America range from 50-90%. When we include both the operating and capital cost for the island ferry system, the cost per person served rises to $13,500, 28x the cost per capita of the NL road system.
So what are some of options we have as a province?
- Support these communities to retain their people and generate economic opportunities.
- Continue the status quo. Fund ferries to 98%. Let the communities continue their decline.
- Increase the cost recovery rate of ferry services to 65%, representing a 13x increase in fares for Bell Island and over a 40x increase in fares for most communities. This would increase the cost of passenger transit, and also goods, including food.
- Turn the ferry services over to private operators. Lease the vessels to them and mandate a minimum level of service allowed.
- Stop providing ferry service to selected communities. Offer optional resettlement assistance to any who wish to relocate. Sell the ferries used on those routes.
The case of our ferry system is an extreme example of the discussions required around how we support rural and isolated communities. It is a difficult dialogue, but one we must have to find a way to sustainability.
BACKGROUND & SOURCES
NL’s Island Ferry System: Key Statistics
[Note: 09/02/16 The table below has been edited to include data from Fogo/Change Islands]
Cost Recovery Rates – North American Ferries:
- Marine Atlantic 65%
- BC Ferries 92%
- Washington State 66%
- TransLink 51%
Budget Summary (2015-16)
Maintenance (Admin) $9,600,000
Maintenance (Summer) $21,200,000
Maintenance (Winter) $82,200,000
Operations (Island) $49,400,000
Operations (Labrador) $27,000,000
Capital (Terminals) $13,100,000
Capital (Ferries) $41,500,000
GNL Departmental Budgets (2015-16)
Marine Services: PP.108-110
Briefing to the Minster of Transportation and Works (December 2015)
Marine Services: PP.122-159