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Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Penny For the Ferryman?

Over at CBC.ca they have a story about the Bell Island ferry...again. It seems that every couple of months there's a "ferry story" of some kind. Wether it's the two usually serving Bell Island, The Earl W. Windsor serving Fogo and Change Islands, the ferry for Long Island, Little Bay Islands, Ramea, the one across the Strait of Bell Isle or up the coast of Labrador. Regardless of the ferry the story is often the same; the ferry, or the schedule is inadequate.

Usually it's due to a mechanical failure of some kind, then another ferry is pulled up from the grave or off another route to fill in while the broken down piece of ancient marine infrastructure is repaired. Lets be honest, these things are not cheap, and that's why most of the provincial ferry fleet is in very poor condition. The province pays millions of dollars per year in operational costs for a few thousand people. If you were to take the total population of all people in NL who can only be reached by a ferry I wonder what that number would be? 20,000? Unlikely it would even be that high. Yet as a province we spend millions to keep the vessels going and the residents still complain that the ferries are old and the routes are inadequate. Do they have any right to complain? I say yes they do.

The argument paraded around by most is something along the lines of a new resettlement program instead of keeping the ferries going, either that or charging the ferry users for the full cost of the ferry. Those two certainly seem to be popular comments on this story. Unfortunately these folks are missing a couple of details, as I see it. First is the idea of users paying the full cost.

My experience has taught me that the "user pay" model cannot be applied to a government service, ever. The costs involved are always too large to be carried by anyone except government. Does that make it a subsidy? If it does then most every service you think you pay for is also subsidized. Vehicle registration, policing, healthcare, and then there are a few very close to home. If you have municipal water and sewer and you think your water/sewer fee is covering the cost of that service you are sadly mistaken. No municipality in this province charges a large enough fee to cover the initial costs plus the ongoing maintenance of water and sewer infrastructure. Like many government services it is the power of the collective whole that has the might to bear the cost of services for all. Get over it.

Then there's that idea that these people have chosen to live there and therefore they just have to deal with whatever they can afford or move. Funny to hear people from NL make that argument because it is the exact same thing said about NL by other in Canada. Its what is said about the ACOA funds, the EI program, and other federal services that we receive, just like....the Marine Atlantic ferry service! Would you like to have to pay the full cost of operation every time you cross that boat? That's what I thought. We have to begin to accept that we are still a very rural province, and as such it costs more money to deliver services, goods, and people to all of our communities. Yes it's expensive, and no it will never meet the full desires of the people who live in the more remote areas of NL, but it is part of how we exist, and what we should be doing is exploring new ways to deliver services, goods, and people instead of crying about "subsidizing" transportation for others.

There was a time when a person died, and the family would place a penny in their mouth to pay for their passage across the river Styx. Without the penny the ferryman would not cart the body across and the person would be stuck without a way across to the afterlife. If a person dies today, in 2011, what does the ferry man charge to carry the body across?

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