12 March 2015

The Salvation of Bell Island and Other Fairy Stories #nlpoli

The Conservatives rode to power in 2003  by accusing the Liberals of not being able to manage anything.  Ferries played a big part of their narrative of supposed incompetence.

Just to prove that Karma is Payback’s other name,  the Conservatives have proven themselves to be considerably worse at managing the province’s ferry system than the Liberals ever were in the Connies worst lies.

The Conservatives currently running the place have proven themselves to be worse than previous administrations – Liberal or Progressive Conservative - at managing a great many things, as it turned out, but that’s another story.  Let’s stick with the ferries.

In 2003, the Conservatives promised to use government procurement to feed local businesses.  One of the areas they had in mind was shipbuilding.

“Our vessel replacement policy will be guided by net economic benefits to the Province rather than acquisition cost,”  they promised.  Money would be no object.  “Using this principle, we will be able to replace some or all of the provincial ferry fleet with new vessels built in the Province.”

New vessels built in the province.

Remember that.

A decade of decisive action… sort of

2005:  they start looking for a place to build the ferries.

2007:  they think it’s going to take $25 million to build them.

2007:  they ask two small yards to bid.

2008:  In June, the provincial government hands a $50 million contract to the yard in Marystown for two ships.  The guys who got the contract aren’t the ones who were originally supposed to be building the ships. There’s an option for a third ferry and talk about plans for a fourth ferry.  One ship is supposed to be done by 2009, with the second in 2010.

2008:   In November, the government and the company are still hung up in talks.  No work has started on the ferries but they bought engines anyway .

2009:  the Clarenville yard bails on the whole scheme, without explanation.  The yard  was originally going to build the ferries and later was to be a 25% subcontractor on the Kiewit job.

2009:  an Irving company gets the contract to design new ferries.

2010:  Two ferries delayed, the third hung up and the fourth still a paper concept, the Conservatives start talking about a new tender for six more ferries.

2011:  Kiewit finishes the two ferries, behind schedule and over budget.

2013:  An announcement for two new ferries, the first to cost $51 million with a second of similar cost. Yes folks, that’s double the cost of the two ferries built in Marystown. The first one will go to Fogo. The second will go to Bell Island.

The ships will be built by a company based in the Netherlands, with the construction work actually done in Romania.

Transportation minister NIck McGrath muttered something in the House during Question Period about the company shifting work to the province  Nothing ever materialises of that claim.

2013:  The provincial government announced they’d begin work on upgrading the docks on the Bell Island run for a ferry not due to arrive for another three or four years.

2015:  The government announces a tender for work on the Bell Island run for a ferry that won’t arrive for another year or so.

A ferry, a ferry,  my kingdom… yeah whatever

If you want to understand why the provincial government is in a financial mess, the sordid tale of the ferries is a good place to start.  Chronic cost over-runs and delays over the past decade add up over time. The ferries are not an isolated case.

In Bell Island, the mayor claims the new ferry is the greatest thing to happen to the island since the iron ore mines closed there in 1966.  The island has seen a number of new ferries since then but for some inexplicable reason, this one will be different. Maybe Gary Gosine owes David Brazil a favour.  Maybe Gary is up for an appointment from the Conservatives.  Maybe he is just nuts.

arktika1Maybe Gary is just like the people on the coast of Labrador.  They live in a place where every year the ocean between the island and their communities on the mainland gets locked up with ice.  The ferry can’t cross. Icebreakers can;t get through it.  This year it is so heavy that maybe even the Arkitka, the nuclear-powered Soviet behemoth icebreaker, likely couldn’t punch through the ice.

Some people on the coast of Labrador apparently think they are getting second-rate service because, you know,  they cannot get across a stretch of ocean blocked with ice no matter how bad the ice is. 

Some people just bitch because they can.  They are like the folks who used to complain about the ferries across the Gulf run by Marine Atlantic.  Constitutional cattle cars someone once called them.

So someone at marine Atlantic changed things.  Better boats.  Better customer service.  Now people bitch about the high class, high quality boats that carry them comfortably across the Gulf.  Give us back the cattle cars they say because that’s all we need.

Or the folks in Corner Brook. 

Marine Atlantic has launched a test on the Argentia run to see if it works. They are offering a discount for booking in advance. Argentia is less than 10% of the ferry service’s traffic. Marine Atlantic is  running the test so they can see if they can increase traffic. If it works, they’ll apply the same marketing scheme to the whole service because it will increase traffic.  More traffic means the company will earn more money and help keep costs down.

So the people in Corner Brook are bitching that this little marketing scheme will take passengers from the west coats and hurt businesses in Corner Brook and all along the highway from Port aux Basques.

A simple suggestion

There’s something about people in this province and ferries.

One of the reasons people bitch about ferries is that they don’t think they pay for them. They think ferries magically appear. They think the ferries aren’t governed by the laws of physics, fiscals, or anything else real.

So let’s make it real for them. Take the provincial ferry system and put it in a Crown corporation. Take it away from the politicians and the bureaucrats.  Give it a board of directors, appointed by the leaders of the parties in the House and approved by a double majority vote, one of all members, the other of the opposition.

Tell those directors they can get a transfer from the treasury equal to 75% of the cost of running the ferries every year. The other 25% would come from fees and cost savings from running the service.

Gary Gosine can chair the board and the people who want to build a tunnel across the Strait to Labrador can have a seat on the board they can fight over. Their remuneration on the board should be linked to how well they balance the books. Basically, they shouldn’t get a nickel in expenses if the books don’t balance. And they can’t quit for the whole three year term without paying a fine for each year of their term they don’t serve..

When you have no stake in the outcome, you tend to think there are no consequences when things go wrong.

Let’s give some people a stake in the outcome of the provincial ferry service.  We might find a more efficient ferry system in the process and we wouldn’t have to privatize it.