An inter-island passenger ferry between the Southern Gulf Islands and Sidney could be coming soon.
The Capital Regional District has issued a request for proposals, looking for a business case for a pilot project.
“The results of the pilot project will be evaluated to determine if a multi-route passenger-only ferry service is viable and how it could be funded,” the request says.
The service could include Salt Spring Island, North Pender Island, South Pender Island, Mayne Island, Saturna Island, Galiano Island and Sidney.
However, the pilot project would include only a single route going to one destination, according to a feasibility study prepared by Marine Transit Consulting Group and KPFF Consulting Engineers.
All elements of the passenger-only ferry service would be undertaken by private operators under contract, it said. That could include a not-for-profit society or others.
The feasibility study found a multi-route ferry system would require funding beyond passenger fares.
“It is evident that the multiple routes identified involve long trips between small separated islands and Vancouver Island, which are costly to operate,” the report said.
“In addition, many of the islands have low populations and there are limited opportunities to address commuter trips, which can result in a small market and limited ability for the fares to cover operating costs.”
Several water taxis currently operate in the area and have not been able to provide a sustained ferry-type service due to operating costs, capital investment, staffing and other challenges.
It recommended a pilot project to demonstrate potential ridership and identify challenges.
Sidney Mayor Steve Price, who chairs the CRD board, said the ferry would likely be based in his municipality.
“Sidney would be the home port. It would radiate from here out to the Gulf Islands. We’re hoping to put it at Port Sidney Marina, because we’re rebuilding the breakwaters there,” he said.
Price said creating a direct link between Sidney and the Southern Gulf Islands — a trip that can take hours and careful schedule co-ordination using B.C. Ferries — could be an economic boon for the community, improving access to some of Sidney’s amenities and services.
Wayne McIntyre, Salt Spring Island’s CRD director, said there’s precedent for such a service.
The Tour des Iles Festival, which depends largely on volunteers, has offered shuttle services between Galiano, Mayne, Pender, Saturna and Salt Spring for three years, and students travel from smaller islands to Salt Spring for school.
As a CRD director, he has pushed for better integration of water transportation, including ferries, with land transportation plans.
“Transporting people to medical appointments and things like that could be done more seamlessly,” he said.
He said he’s looking forward to learning more about the service’s feasibility.
“The price per trip would be a factor and the schedule would be another thing,” he said. “There are a lot of questions that need to be asked.”
Larry Peck, who is commissioner for Saturna Island’s Lyall Harbour and was a charter captain for 30 years, said connections between the Gulf Islands have eroded over time. “Historically, the fishing community kept the bond between the islands together. And of course … gasoline or fuel for boat engines was relatively cheap back in the day,” Peck said.
Today, he finds it hard to meet with friends on neighbouring Gulf Island without travelling to a spot on Vancouver Island.
Beyond building community, he said, a passenger-ferry system could help to build a tourism network.
“It means you open up a whole area instead of just one island or another. Tourists can visit different islands and get wonderful, different experiences [in one trip],” said Peck, who is also part of Saturna’s tourism association.
B.C. Ferries spokeswoman Deborah Marshall said B.C. Ferries has no interest at this time in providing an inter-island passenger-only service in the Southern Gulf Islands. “We have capacity for foot passengers on the current vehicular service that we provide,” she said in an email.
She noted there are also water-taxi operators. “I’m sure any additional service options for residents and business operators would be a welcome addition,” Marshall said.
B.C. Ferries provides service to the Gulf Islands from several terminals on Vancouver Island, including Swartz Bay. One route, for example, goes from Swartz Bay to Pender, Mayne, Galiano and back to Swartz Bay via Pender.