"Too bad." That's what British Columbia Ferry Services Inc.'s chief executive officer said last July when The Globe and Mail's Justine Hunter asked about complaints the government-funded company's new drop trailer service had an unfair advantage over its private sector competitors. But David Hahn may have to change that response because of recent legislation introduced by the Campbell administration. BC Ferries launched that service in 2008, allowing truck drivers to drop their trailers off at its Tsawwassen, Duke Point and Swartz Bay terminals. Those trailers are then loaded onto a ferry for pickup on the other side of the route.
According to the company's annual report, that service "has been well received in the commercial market" with BC Ferries expecting "substantial growth in this area." But it hasn't been well received by the Washington Marine Group of Companies, which has been in the same business since the 1960s.
Last summer, Delta-based Seaspan Coastal Intermodal Inc. - a member of the group - publicly complained the former Crown corporation had an unfair advantage because it gets an annual subsidy from the province, which amounted to $149 million in fiscal 2009/10.
BC Ferries has insisted no taxpayer dollars are being used to bankroll the drop trailer service.
Nevertheless, Seaspan hired government relations firm Hill and Knowlton Canada Ltd. to lobby the province to create a "competitive regulatory environment" for "commercial goods movement to Vancouver Island."
At least, that's what the government's lobbyists registry says.
The registry also states Hill and Knowlton had two lobbyists working on that effort - the premier's former deputy minister Ken Dobell and former Partnerships British Columbia communications and government relations director Tamara Little.
Seaspan's general manager Richard Plecas earlier refused to provide details on Mr. Dobell's work - which got underway in October - stating, "My comment is no comment. It's confidential and privileged."
Six months later the government introduced legislation requiring the independent commissioner responsible for regulating BC Ferries to determine whether the company has an unfair advantage in any of the competitive services it provides.
The legislation makes specific reference to BC Ferries' drop trailer business when defining what a competitive service is.
It goes on to state that, if the ferry firm is found to have an unfair advantage, the commissioner must order it contract out that service or impose a minimum fee that reflects the service's true cost.
That's in-line with what the province's comptroller general Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland suggested when she released her review of BC Ferries governance model back in November.
Still, the question remains whether Seaspan's complaints influenced government.
"I think it's clear Seaspan has made their view very publicly known and certainly has spoken to a number of people about this," Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Shirley Bond told Public Eye. "But this is a bigger principle issue that simply Seaspan."
"This is about competitive services in general and whether or not there is any subsidy or any other item like ferry terminals, for example, that may allow BC Ferries to offer a lower cost service. So this is about a principle that the comptroller general pointed out to us."
Neither Seaspan nor Mr. Dobell have responded to phone calls placed earlier this morning.
Minister Bond added she didn't speak to Mr. Dobell or Ms. Little "about this matter."