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Cable-ferry plan draws protests from Gulf Islands

A boater heads out on the water as the B.C. Ferries vessels Queen of Oak Bay and Queen of Capilano are docked at the Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal in West Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday March 5, 2013.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

As British Columbia prepares to build the longest cable ferry in the world, residents of the two Gulf Islands it will serve are hoping to shame the provincial government into halting the project.

"I'm going to try to publicly embarrass them," said Peter Kimmerly, a former ferry and icebreaker captain who has led opposition to the new ferry plan for the route between Buckley Bay on Vancouver Island and Denman Island. The ferry would also be used by those crossing Denman to get to Hornby Island, home to about 1,000 permanent residents and up to 7,000 vacationers during the summer.

Mr. Kimmerly, a Hornby resident and operator of a gin distillery, has organized a public protest on Denman Island for next Sunday. He has started a petition that already has 600 signatures, and is encouraging everyone to write to B.C. Transportation Minister Todd Stone.

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The BC Ferries board approved the plan last November for the 1.9-kilometre ferry, which will save the corporation 50 per cent of its current labour costs and up to 55 per cent of its fuel costs – or about $2-million a year.

Cable ferries are pulled from one venue to another by water currents and by winches at each end; this one will carry as many as 50 cars, the same as the old boat. BC Ferries rejected the idea of also building a cable ferry between Denman and Hornby islands, determining that the weather and water current conditions were too challenging. It says no other routes in B.C. would be suitable for a cable.

Residents turned out in force to public meetings on the two islands on Aug. 8, when they vociferously criticized the arguments presented by BC Ferries staff for a cable ferry. They say they're being used for a dangerous experiment, that the existing ferry works fine, and that there will be inevitable problems with breakdowns and safety because of the design. Many people are also concerned that 15 of 30 ferry jobs will be eliminated. "It's a crazy project," Mr. Kimmerly said. "It's such a lightweight little ship. And if this is built, it will be our ferry for 40 years."

The anger speaks to the long-running anxiety island residents have about the ferry service that is essential to jobs off the island and livelihoods on it. Costs and fares have risen steadily in recent decades, sparking constant concern that the islands will become impossible to live or do business on.

"I can understand where the opposition is coming from. A lot of issues are driven by fear and apprehension because the ferries are the lifeline of our community," said Tony Law, chairman of the BC Ferries advisory committee for the Denman and Hornby routes.

That committee hasn't taken a position on the cable ferry because its members feel as though they don't have the expertise to weigh in, Mr. Law said. Instead, the committee has focused on trying to get the ferries corporation to communicate as much as possible with residents.

Speaking only on his own behalf, Mr. Law said it's hard for him to imagine that BC Ferries would put in place a system that would break down frequently.

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But the committee's reticence about assessing complex technical issues isn't shared by opponents.

Mr. Kimmerly is quick to dispute the information about cable-ferry feasibility that BC Ferries has commissioned from engineering companies. He says he'd be willing to support a cable ferry if the design was changed to specify thicker cables and a vessel that is deeper and heavier.

"At the moment, it's underdesigned," Mr. Kimmerly said, adding the current design is for a vessel that is only 2.1 metres deep.

Mark Wilson, vice-president of engineering for BC Ferries, says the corporation has been doing feasibility studies and engineering analysis for the past three years. "Change doesn't come easily. But we are committed to delivering the same level of safe, reliable and efficient service as past years."

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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