A ferry, ferry big problem

Cutting back on ferry services is bad, but only the tip of the iceberg. What we need is a cohesive provincial transportation strategy.

The only consistent thing about Marine Atlantic’s ferry crossings is the controversy they continue to cause.

They’re in the news again, thanks to the announcement of a reduction in ferry crossings – just in time for the summer tourist season.

The impact this will have on seasonal employees is bad enough. But it will of course also have an impact on tourism that will be felt throughout the island. And perhaps worse yet is the message this sends to tourists, both actual and prospective. The deterrent effect of a province whose transportation woes are consistently in the news should not be underestimated. It already takes an extra effort to convince tourists (and bands, and politicians, and ripe fruit and vegetables) to travel the extra distance to get here – regular announcements that the powers-that-be are going to make it more difficult for them to do so represent an unorthodox and creative approach to generating tourism. And ultimately, not a particularly successful one.

A constitutional guarantee

As some of our federal MPs and provincial MHAs have been diligently noting, ferry transportation is not like any industry or business. It’s a constitutionally guaranteed right; a public service the federal government swore to uphold. When this province joined Confederation, one of the terms of union was that the federal government would ensure regular and adequate ferry service. It makes sense – why join a country that you cannot even get to? And sure there’s air travel now, but some of us find it difficult to justify a ticket between Toronto and St. John’s when it’d be cheaper to fly to Paris. Regardless, the need for ferries remains. Just because you don’t like the terms of your rental agreement, doesn’t mean you can stop paying rent. Or getting away with paying less just because you want to.

Over the years the federal government has tried to fritter away its obligations with cash payments for roads to the provincial government. But this is as irresponsible as it is self-defeating. Instead of every level of government energetically seeking ways to avoid these responsibilities, they ought to be working together toward the aim of building a system to be proud of. For most countries, transportation infrastructure is a mark of pride: it is, after all, the clearest and most direct example we offer to visitors about how competent and advanced our country is and how well we are able to do things. I’ve been on ferries in countries all over the world – from Asia to Northern Europe – where sometimes I’m one of a handful of people on a massive modern ferry-boat that makes Marine Atlantic’s vessels look like Victorian paddleboats. The point is, regardless of demand, these countries are opting for a modern and secure infrastructure that guarantees people know that no matter what the season, or what the demand, if they need to get from Point A to Point B they can show up at the harbour and find a boat able to take them there. Reliability – not profitability – is the hallmark of a modern transportation system. I know many people who would much rather take a boat to and from the island than fly. Yet they don’t dare, because the ferry system is unreliable, unpredictable, and often more prone to leave you stranded and penniless than to get you where you’re going. That is what needs to change.

A transitory problem

The thorny matter of tourism and transportation raises broader issues than coastal ferries, however. The lack of any coherent provincial public transportation infrastructure is a serious problem, for tourists and residents alike. When the province joined Canada this was actually less of a problem, given the presence of the Newfoundland Railway. Since the closure of the Railway in 1988, there’s been a profound gap in provincial transportation that successive provincial governments have been remarkably negligent in addressing. Not only have they failed to address it, they’ve failed to even put it on the agenda.

Beyond a haphazard patchwork of regional services (which, depending on their sense of ambition and self-esteem, refer to themselves as either ‘taxi’ or ‘bus’), the only way to get across the island is by means of a privately-operated bus service that crosses the island once a day. This leaves much to be desired. And, quite apart from service complaints, inadequate schedules and destinations render it a less than adequate option when it comes to getting around the island. And none of this even addresses Labrador. While I’m focusing on the Island in this column, Labrador deserves just as much investment in public transportation infrastructure. You’d think we’d be eager to show off this great province; instead our government[s] make it as hard as possible for anybody to see any of it.

Tourists can, of course, rent cars – provided there are any available. In recent years we’ve seen the island even run out of an adequate supply of rental cars.

But then there’s also the fact that a lot of people simply don’t want to rent cars. While on holiday, many people don’t want the hassle of having to pay extra for a car, figure out where to get gas as they travel around the island, obtain and figure out maps, watch out for moose, and exert the mental energy it takes to drive for 8 or 10 hours across the island. They’re on holiday, remember?

Not to mention those people who cannot rent cars because they’re too young to meet the conditions of rental agencies, for insurance reasons, or because they simply don’t have licenses, as a growing number of youth do not in today’s world.

Or, there are those coming from parts of the world who would have to figure out how to drive on an entirely different side of the road (a stressful undertaking, if you’ve never tried it).

Less excuses, more action

The apparently implicit assumption this province’s politicians and tourism planners have made that tourists would simply rent cars reflects not only small-thinking, it reflects a lack of commitment to developing the sort of diverse provincial economy that tourism, coupled with sensible infrastructure planning, could allow.

And let’s not allow our politicians’ inferiority complex to get in the way. It’s got nothing to do with our size. As somebody who travels extensively, I’ve been in far more sparsely inhabited places that have had far superior transportation systems. It’s got nothing to do with size or even use: transportation infrastructure is a reflection of the public commitment to growth and development. It’s also a reflection of government’s commitment to community. It doesn’t take huge amounts of dollars: just intelligent thinking and planning (an admittedly scarcer resource than dollars in today’s world).

Transportation infrastructure is a reflection of the public commitment to growth and development. It’s also a reflection of government’s commitment to community.

It is a backward form of politics to assume that infrastructure should be based on demand: in other words, that it will follow need. Infrastructure is what helps create demand; it helps invite and encourage the growth of our towns and regions. Improved public infrastructure will help address regional labour shortages by making it easier for people to travel between communities for work. It will help to encourage tourism, by making it easier for tourists to plan trips, or even to make spontaneous changes to their itineraries while they’re here (say, to go visit some small community they read about but would not otherwise be able to find a way to get to). It’ll reduce deaths and injuries that occur through car accidents on our province’s roads – through exhaustion, impaired driving, or moose accidents.

And it will encourage people to travel more around the island. I know far too many townies who never venture beyond the overpass, not because they don’t want to but because the province makes it so difficult for anybody who doesn’t have a car to do so. People will be more prone to explore this province they call home, to experience its full diversity and to see parts of it they may never have seen before. Instead of spending a summer weekend in the house watching TV, they could hop on a bus (or a train, if we get really ambitious) and venture out to some part of the island they’ve never been to before.

And an improved provincial transportation network would pay for itself in a range of indirect ways. The constant wear and tear on the province’s roads that necessitate constant upkeep, pothole repair and more are caused in no small part by the over-use of cars and trucks traveling across the island. Reducing wear and usage through public or mass transit would greatly reduce the province’s annual expenditures on such costs.

We can do better

The ills and inconveniences our people face when they hit the roads are not the product of some vague inevitability of weather, geography and small populations, as our politicians would like us to believe. They are the product of poor planning; more often than not, they are the product of a complete absence of planning. Moreover, the compartmentalized habits of our old-fashioned politicians also work against the chances of truly innovative ideas breaking through. There’s a tendency to think of transportation as a responsibility for municipalities: this is one of the problems with the inadequate Metrobus system. Not only does the City of St. John’s play the needless and bizarre shell-game of dodging responsibility for it by pretending it’s an arms-length company that loses money, but the province dodges the fact that an inadequate public transit system in the provincial capital slows the growth and development potential of the entire province. There needs to be a concerted, unified, provincial transit strategy developed, bringing together municipalities across the province, the provincial government, the feds, tourism operators, ferry operators, the business community, and civic community leaders, to identify the needs, the gaps, the possibilities, and develop concrete timelines and budgets for building a transit infrastructure that will serve the needs of tourists, business and industry, and communities alike.

The inadequacy of Marine Atlantic is only the tip of the iceberg (to use an unfortunate metaphor). But it’s the most glaring evidence of a gap in public policy for which, in the 21st century, there is no excuse. Perhaps this provincial election will be the one where some party will have the imagination to make the sorry state of our provincial transportation infrastructure an issue.

They say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. But with a convenient, reliable transit system and online booking, I’d probably enjoy that journey a whole lot more.


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