By Brian Lawrence
A petition by East Shore residents to relocate the Kootenay Lake ferry’s Balfour terminal, resulting in a shorter crossing, has been given to the Ministry of Transportation (MOT), but the government has already charted a different course.
Moving the terminal from Balfour to Queens Bay was ruled out following public consultation in 2016, said Nelson-Creston MLA Michelle Mungall, and planning for and the construction of a second ferry to replace the MV Balfour, which supplements the MV Osprey 2000, upgrades to both terminals is well underway.
“The Ministry of Transportation is well down the road of investing in a new vessel that would complement the Osprey,” said Mungall from her Victoria office. “Under the previous proposal that would have had the relocation to Queens Bay, the overall cost was based on a secondary vessel that would be used as needed, and it would be a barge.”
Organizers presented the petition with about 2,550 signatures, 1,226 of those from the Nelson-Creston provincial riding, at Mungall’s constituency office on Oct. 31. They hoped she would present it to the B.C. legislature as she did with a previous petition asking the then-in-power Liberal government to keep the terminal in Balfour, but Mungall delivered it to the MOT.
“We’re no longer influencing the decision that’s on the table,” she said of the current NDP government. “That ministry can take a look at it and they can respond directly to the organizers of the petition.”
Organizers are hoping that the process could be revisited, this time with meaningful public consultation with East Shore residents, for whom regular ferry travel is a necessity.
“Why did they not consult with the ferry users?” said Herve Blezy, speaking for the petition organizers. “Do the people from Balfour come shopping on our side? That’s probably the main issue. They did not identify the client.”
The first round of public consultation was held in 2016 as the provincial government explored alternatives to challenges with the ferry, including the West Arm’s narrow and shallow navigation channel, and increased traffic during peak periods.
That consultation included a questionnaire, which had over 1,700 responses, with 21 per cent from the East Shore, 14 per cent from Balfour and 10 per cent from Queens Bay. Of the total responses, 76 per cent favoured keeping the Balfour terminal.
With that response and other concerns, such as the cost and the more windy weather in Queens Bay, considered, the government chose to keep the terminal in Balfour, and began developing plans to replace the MV Balfour with a new vessel, scheduled to launch in 2022.
Organizers of the recent petition, though, are concerned that the economic and social impacts weren’t accounted for.
“It’s been brought up that the ferry is a barrier to success,” said Blezy.
Some East Shore workers and students, for example, have to take a 7:10 a.m. ferry to go to reach their western destinations on time. One Boswell resident, Blezy said, uses the ferry 50 times a year between doctor’s appointments and social activities, such as choir.
Balfour residents, however, also have economic concerns, said Mungall.
“Balfour has a robust, strong economy that is dependent on the ferry terminal,” she said. “There would be a negative impact on people’s jobs and people’s livelihoods. Was it fair to do that for a five- or ten-minute-shorter travel time?”
Blezy said that safety issues also seemed to be brushed aside by the government. It’s far easier, for example, for an ambulance to travel from Riondel to Nelson rather than to Creston. And the traffic this summer was backed up for seven kilometres while the Kootenay Pass was closed due to forest fire activity.
“Imagine if there was a forest fire in that area? How would you escape?” said Blezy.
A western terminal closer to the East Shore would help with that, he said and would not only enable faster crossings, but also a reduced price tag. In 2016, the report by engineering firm SNC-Lavalin indicated a potential cost of about $25 million to move the terminal to Queens Bay and $36-$40 million to upgrade the current Balfour terminal and build a new vessel.
“Here we’re about to lose, in my opinion, tens of millions to an inefficient system and nobody seems to care about it,” said Blezy.
While the East Shore residents’ petition doesn’t guarantee that the decision will be revisited, Mungall stressed the need to involve all Kootenay Lake residents if there is any future discussion.
“It would need to involve the entire region as it did before,” said Mungall. “That’s only fair. That’s fair to everybody.”
And the construction of a new vessel may present options that aren’t currently available, including revamping the ferry schedule, which was reduced after the Liberal government came to power in 2001.
“That, to me, is the most important question that I have: What is the possible schedule for our ferry?” said Mungall.