11 December 2017 0 Comments Posted By : Charlie Smith

John Horgan's legacy to British Columbia will be forged by his government's decision on Site C dam

The headline on this commentary is about the Site C dam. But I'm going to start with a walk down memory lane to another controversial government capital project.

I'm hopeful that this will all make sense by the end of this lengthy essay.

One of the biggest decisions facing the NDP government in the early 1990s was how to upgrade the ferry fleet.

This was necessary to meet the needs of a growing population on Vancouver Island, the Sunshine Coast, and the Gulf Islands.

The government could have gone with conventional ferries. But instead, then premier Mike Harcourt agreed with employment and investment minister Glen Clark's decision to build three catamarans.

These so-called fast ferries were expected to cost $210 million. They ended up with a price tag of $460 million.

They were completed three years behind schedule.

These vessels were also expected to carry up to 800 passengers and 240 cars and travel at speeds up to 37 knots.

However, they couldn't move that quickly in some areas because the ships' wakes were too large, damaging docks. This was one of several unintended consequences.

The fastcat engines also had trouble dealing with the flotsam in the water so they were constantly undergoing repairs. That too was unexpected at the outset.

Here was another unanticipated problem: passengers didn't want to bring pets on these vessels because the air was too warm. They didn't want to find Fido dead in the back seat of the car.

Eventually, these fast ferries were pulled out of service and the Gordon Campbell goverment sold them at a huge loss to a large B.C. Liberal donor.

It left B.C. Ferries in a horrible situation: how could it offer a decent level of service after a boondoggle of this magnitude?

Here's what followed:

1. The Crown corporation was turned into a government-owned company with a tough-talking American CEO with no real political accountability.

2. Fares went up sharply during the B.C. Liberal era. Vancouver Island, Sunshine Coast, and Gulf Island residents paid an enormous price in lost economic activity, not to mention fewer visits from loved ones.

3. Because of the high price of ferry service, more people in the Lower Mainland became less willing to travel to Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. This diminished the bonds between British Columbians in these two regions.

4. Many Vancouverites found it more appealing to drive to Whistler or the Okanagan wine country for their B.C. vacations, stimulating economic activity in these areas rather than on Vancouver Island.

5. Resentment grew on the island against the B.C. Liberals, who won progressively fewer seats in this region in subsequent elections.

6. The B.C. Greens gathered momentum on Vancouver Island, electing their first MP and first B.C. MLA in history.

7. There were murmurings of Vancouver Island separating from B.C. and forming its own province because it was getting such a raw deal from the B.C. Liberal government. Ferry fares and ferry service are common gripes among island residents.

As this story indicates, poorly thought-out capital projects can have long-term ramifications.

Some of these consequences are not anticipated at the time politicians make these decisions.

That's because they're often driven by shorter term considerations.

Foremost is how their policies will play out on Global B.C., CTV, CBC, C-Fax Radio, CHNL Radio, and CKNW Radio or in the pages of the Vancouver Sun, Province, Globe and Mail and Black Press and Glacier newspapers.

This is what drove an expensive and unnecessary convention-centre expansion in Vancouver. It went from $495 million to $883 million by the time it was completed.

The reaction of the corporate media is also an important variable in whether today's NDP government will approve the $8.8-billion Site C dam in northeastern B.C.


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