Carrying a boat load of commuters

CFB Esquimalt Blue Boat commuters worry about joining Colwood Crawl

Region's mayors react with concern, tout need for alternative solutions

Military families are bracing for a longer, more expensive commute to CFB Esquimalt when the base terminates its popular Blue Boat commuter shuttle service at the end of April.

One Sooke family is devastated by the news, and worries what it will mean for their already tight budget.

“(My husband) uses the Blue Boat and commuting from Sooke it saves us time and gas,” said the Navy wife, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Normally, leaving Sooke to drive to the boat (in Colwood) can take upwards of 45 minutes if the traffic is bad, which means leaving here at roughly 6 a.m.”

Her husband is one of 400 military and civilian personnel who ride the Blue Boats between Colwood and Esquimalt every day, Monday to Friday, who will have to find alternative transportation.

“It takes approximately a quarter of a tank of gas each way, and with the prices the way they are, you can understand how upsetting this is,” the woman said. “And no one really wants to carpool from out here.”

CFB Esquimalt spokesperson navy Lt. Michael McWhinnie said the decision to cancel the service was made due to staffing constraints.

There aren’t enough personnel to operate the ferry service as well as other vessels in the auxiliary fleet, including tugs and fire boats, within the base’s Port Operations and Emergency Services Branch, McWhinnie said.

In the past year alone, 10 per cent of the staff either retired or otherwise moved on and have not been replaced, he said. “It reached a tipping point.”

No plans are in place to fill the vacancies now or in the immediate future.

The Blue Boats, manned by six civilians, make 13 daily runs per week, between 6 a.m. and 5:45 p.m., attracting a total daily ridership of about 800 passengers. Upwards of 9,000 passengers used the service in one month last year.

Though the commuter service is popular, the primary job of the Blue Boats, which have been in service at the base since they were built in 1955, has been to move personnel and supplies to various Department of National Defence job sites around Esquimalt Harbour.

“People increasingly took advantage of that existing service for commuting purposes in recent years,” McWhinnie said.

Randall Garrison, MP for Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, plans to meet with base officials to determine whether the ferry service can be extended during the closure of the Craigflower Bridge. The bridge will be closed in June, to make way for its eventual replacement.

“This could also allow more time to explore alternative operations of a similar service,” he said in a release.

Langford Mayor Stew Young mourned the loss of the service, which he said benefited the region, not just those who use the boats.

“Add 400 people … in the morning on that highway that’s already full and it’s going to affect everybody else who is already in that queue,” he said. “It’s another reason why we need that E&N (railway), because it goes right by the front of the door (at CFB Esquimalt).”

An estimated 46 per cent of CFB Esquimalt personnel are affected by the ‘crawl,’ according to base data. More than 480 housing units are located at Belmont Park in Colwood, making it the largest military housing community on the south Island.

The cancellation of the shuttle prompted Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins to begin asking municipal, defence and Victoria Shipyards stakeholders to form a working group to discuss transportation challenges, identify solutions – including the E&N rail service – and to ask higher levels of government for support.

“You can’t make a decision in Ottawa and not have an understanding of all the layers of the problem here,” she said. “I don’t know if we’ve been clear on our message.”

emccracken@vicnews.com

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