Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Queensborough Ferries, or If You Believe That I've Got a Bridge to Sell You

Ahh, the pedestrian bridge to Queensborough.  The final rabbit to be pulled from the casino grant hat.  With reconfigured plans for development east of the Fraser River Discovery Centre, linking Westminster Pier Park to Quayside and potentially all the way up to Sapperton Landing, we will only be missing one link – Lulu Island to the mainland without resorting to the Queensborough Bridge. 

Much has and will be said about the eventual bridge.  It’s still many years off.  What I, and apparently a few others have wondered, is if we need to wait until the sun goes supernova before we see it, why not use a ferry for the interim?

As is usual for these sorts of things, the answer comes down to money.  Just for fun, I did an electronic paper napkin business plan for one (yes dreaming up business ideas and spreadsheeting them death is fun for me). 

The obvious analogy and comparison comes from those cute little ferries running across False Creek.  However, the operation conditions for False Creek and New West are substantially different.  For one thing we don’t have 100,000 people living within walking distance of our docks.  Secondly, we have a river to contend with and larger distances between places people actually want to go than Vancouver. 

But first of all, to run a ferry we need a boat.  From what I can tell, a 12 passenger ferry is the largest one that can be handled by one crew – more than 12 passengers you get into a whole different world of rules.  Just in case you thought otherwise – the Canada Marine Act and Regulations are hard.  I can’t believe how much time I spent just trying to figure out how many crew members you need on a ship of a given passenger capacity, and I never did find a definitive answer.  As best I can tell, Transport Canada’s answer is “show us your ship and we’ll tell you.”  So one of these, with a hardtop and in a brighter colour should do nicely.

Daylight come and me wanna go home

Next we need somewhere to go.  Being the one in charge of this fiction, I demand the route traverse the following points:
  • River Market
  • Quayside
  • Port Royal
  • Queensborough Landing

Let’s assume everyone involved is being generous and giving a dock to use at their location.  The distances as the sturgeon swims are roughly
  • River Market to Quayside:  1.0 km
  • Quayside to Port Royal: 0.4 km
  • Port Royal to Shopping: 2.2 km

Assumption time!
  • Boat cruises at 15 knots (mixing units FTW)
  • Boat burns 8 gph at cruise and 2 gph at idle (let’s throw a few more in there for fun)
  • Fuel costs $1.60 per litre (you thought I was kidding)
  • Captain’s rate of $20 per hour, all in (how do you cancel out Captains?)
  • Said Captain is also our clerk, deckhand, cashier, janitor, seasickness bag dispenser, first aid attendant, and overall superman
  • Maintenance costs are equal to half the fuel costs
  • We run 12 hours per day, every day

If you plug all that into a calculator, it will yell at you for doing science wrong.  Then it will show you that it is possible to make one round trip per hour, and your operating costs are about $62 per hour, or about $5 per seat per hour.  However, that doesn’t include overhead, depreciation, operating expenses that are non-revenue generating, and days lost due to ice on the Fraser.

Who's up for a swim?
Ice on the Fraser River – December 9th, 2013 - photo by James Crosty 
Throw all that crap in there and you’re talking $7 per seat per hour to break even, and that’s not paying off the boat or paying you unless you are the superhero captain (yarrr). 

To make a real business of it you would really need to be generating about $8-10 per seat per hour. What does that mean?  It gets tricky as it depends on both fares charged and how many people are travelling, but an example might be $4 to go from the North Fraser to Port Royal, and $7 to Queensborough Landing.  With those fares, and a mix of 80% Port Royal Passengers and 20% Queensborough Landing Passengers, you would need to run the boat 100% all the time to make money.  And you have zero upside – there’s no way to run more passengers and make more money. 

The Queensborough Landing leg is long, expensive and risky in terms of passenger attraction. What if we chop that off, move the dock so it’s centrally located between the River Market and Quayside, and do a simple shuttle back and forth to Port Royal.  Now we can increase service to four to six round trips per hour instead of one.  Let’s say we do four, so a trip every 15 minutes.  And let’s assume with the shorter crossing we can manage with a less powerful boat that burns less fuel. 

That cuts our operating expenses down - $47 instead of $62 per hour.  Overheads don’t change, so we’re only reducing revenue requirements by $1.25 per seat per hour.  So we still need $7ish per seat per hour to make this worth our while.  Let’s say we charge $3 per trip – to make money we need to average 28-32 passengers per hour, 12 hours a day. 350 people per day, 7 days a week.  That’s only 33% of capacity, so we have the ability to make money, but are there enough people to carry?  And are they willing to pay?

I’m no marketing expert, but I struggle to believe a Queensborough ferry service would get that kind of demand at this point in time.  According to thecommunity plan in 2011 there were 7,155 people living in Queensborough.  There's some 9,000 at Quayside, but if you don't go to Queensborough Landing, there's not a huge draw for them on the island.  Even at the 2040 estimate of nearly 15,000 people in Queensborough I have a hard time believe you would average 350 people per day.

I’m not aware that anyone has done a market study of demand for a ferry service.  So this is going to be the first one, right here.  If anyone is reading this besides my wife, I would love to hear from you either in the comments or @lifeinnewwest on twitter. 
  1. Would you use a River Market/Quayside to Queensborough ferry?
  2. Where would you want it to go?
  3. How often would you take it?
  4. How much would you be willing to pay?

I can’t remember where I saw it, but someone on council said the city is supportive of a ferry, but isn’t willing to run one itself (politician speak for “Good luck, kiddo”).  If we sum all the expenses, it would cost in the neighbourhood of $400,000 per year to run the ferry.  The cost of a pedestrian bridge is estimated between $5 and $10 million depending on the whether they staple it to the rail bridge or build it completely independent.
$5 million would fund a ferry for just over 12 years, assuming no revenue and no savings on overhead from sharing with the city instead of being an independent venture.  If you can get the cost down to $350,000 per year, and revenue of $100,000 per year from fares (90 passengers a day at $3 per trip), advertising and the like, $5 million would run the ferry for 20 years.  Even better, take the $5 million and stick it in some bank preferred shares at 5% - the interest alone would pay for the ferry and you wouldn't need to touch the principal.  

Then there are other possibilities to promote it and encourage ridership.  You could integrate with Translink so one fare carries you from the ferry to a bus or skytrain.  You don’t need to run to Queensborough Landing every run, but set up a deal with the shopping centre to make less frequent runs down there.  Maybe the casino too.  If the winter demand is that friggen awful, run it seasonally.

But even with none of that, a small investment could let the money we already have for the pedestrian bridge pay for a ferry until it’s time to build the bridge. Maybe it’s time for the city to take a deeper look at running a ferry to Queensborough.  

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  1. A partner and I have had two river ready 12 pass wheel chair and bike friendly shuttles ready for a year. Two more forty pass vessels were ready if the project grew to needing them. We had over three hundred people on Queensborough ready to buy monthly passes and Aragon the Developer over there ready to subsidize their operating costs. A half dozen other businesses were ready to help by advertising on the boats. We only needed a wharf on the river market side. We found two that were perfect even found funding to install and update them with lights for night and day operations. For two years we have met with the city, mayor, committees, engineers etc. and have been mislead, stalled and finally discounted as a summer fair weather project. We gave up almost six months ago when it was clear that the city felt that our project with no taxpayers money would threaten their legacy bridge project. Tax payers would say when the city finally got around to building their bridge , "Why are we spending $10 million on a bridge when the shuttle is running smoothly and not costing taxpayers a cent."

    I personally think we need both the shuttles and the bridge but that is not a reality shared by city hall.

  2. Thanks Tom!

    This is a little embarrassing, running off my little fantasy only to have the guy who's done the actual work on this come and comment. I totally feel your frustration. I would be very interested in hearing the city's side of this given they have verbalized support for a ferry before.