British Columbia

25 years ago, B.C.'s fast ferries were announced — spelling the beginning of the end for an NDP government

Twenty-five years ago this week, the B.C. NDP government announced the fast ferries project. For many, the vessels still represent government ineptitude of epic proportions.

Costly vessels often broke down, created a dangerous wake; but former NDP politician says 'idea had merit'

Viewers look over the water from Deep Cove at one of three FastCat Ferries as it sits on a transport ship in Burrard Inlet off North Vancouver, while being prepared for delivery to the Middle East in 2008. (Chuck Stoody/The Canadian Press)

Ross Beaty was paddling around in kayaks close to shore with his twin six-year-old daughters and one of their friends when his world was turned upside down. 

"All of a sudden these waves hit and you just couldn't tell that they were coming," Beaty said over the phone, recalling how a three-metre swell almost capsized their kayaks.

The group had been paddling on calm waters when the wave suddenly hit, sending him scrambling to keep all their vessels afloat. No one was hurt, but the incident sent a surge of anger through Beaty.

"It just was one of those near-death experiences you have where you say, 'This is wrong, we've got to do something,'" he said.

That moment took place more than 20 years ago in the bay by Beaty's shorefront home on Bowen Island, B.C.

The wave came from the wake of one of the province's three ill-fated FastCat ferries, which sailed between West Vancouver and Nanaimo.

Twenty-five years ago this week, the Mike Harcourt NDP government announced the ferry project. The vessels didn't hit the water for another five years, by which time Glen Clark was premier, and were decommissioned not long after.

Glen Clark was B.C. premier during the fast ferries scandal. The project was meant to be a major boon to the B.C. shipyards. (CBC)

The boats, built in B.C., were meant to be a boon to the economy but suffered from significant cost overruns and mechanical failures. One of the vessels never sailed. They were sold at a fraction of their cost.

For many British Columbians like Beaty, the vessels still represent government ineptitude of epic proportions.

Political insiders like Moe Sihota, who was part of the NDP government at the time, say the unintended consequence of the ferries was to keep the NDP from power for years to come.

"There's no doubt that it played a major role in the change of government in 2001," Sihota said. 

The fast ferries were meant to be a boon for the economy, but many say they were a bust. 1:36

'The idea had a lot of merit'

The fast ferries project was unveiled in June 1994. 

The three aluminum high-speed Pacificat catamarans were meant to shave 30 minutes off the existing sailing time. The boats were built at B.C. shipyards. 

The FastCat ferries were built in B.C. and created dozens of jobs. (CBC)

Sihota remembers the project as an opportunity to diversify the economy, create jobs and develop new technology that could be sold around the world. 

"In principle I think the idea had a lot of merit," Sihota said.

Sihota admits there were some risks, but thinks that overall they were warranted given the anticipated benefits. 

'They should never have been built'

Others, like Beaty, feel differently. 

"They should never have been built in the first place," he said.

The first of the three vessels didn't sail until June 1999 — at least two years later than expected. The costs, first estimated at about $200 million, ballooned to more than double that. 

When the ships did finally sail, they were frequently docked because of chronic mechanical issues. And then there was the problem of the boats' large wake, which damaged properties on Bowen Island and elsewhere along the coast.

After the multiple mechanical and wake issues, the B.C. government lead by Glen Clark decided to sell the ferries by March 2000 — before the third vessel had even sailed.

They were dry-docked for years until the B.C. Liberal government sold them to the Washington Marine Group for about $19 million, which then sold them to a yacht-building company in the UAE

The fast ferries were supposed to shave 30 minutes off the crossing from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo, but had to slow down because of the huge wake they caused that damaged the shores along the coast. (CBC)

Branding issue

In the subsequent 2001 election, the NDP government kept only two seats. The party didn't come back to power until two years ago. 

Sihota admits that the B.C. Liberals, then led by Gordon Campbell, adeptly took hold of the issue.

The Liberals astutely played into the NDP's branding issues as an inept party that couldn't manage money or manage projects. 

"We kind of got caught up in people's images of political parties, and the fast ferries tended to validate what was a public concern generally about the NDP brand," Sihota said. 

Public project overruns

Sihota says the reality is that public projects often run over budget. As an example, he points to the retractable roof for B.C. Place, for which costs also doubled — to a final price tag of $563 million. 

The roof was similarly plagued with leaks and mechanical issues, and it was later revealed that it wouldn't be able to close in the rain.

The difference, Sihota says, is that the Liberals aren't plagued with the same branding issue and are thus given more slack. 

For British Columbians like Beaty, who was not an NDP supporter in the first place, the fast ferries were the nail in the coffin for the government of the time. 

"I just didn't think the NDP knew much about running an economy and running the province," he said.

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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