HIRA was a delegation at the County of Frontenac Council Meeting this morning with the intent of bringing to the attention of the County Council, the concerns of Howe Islanders with the ferry service with particular reference to the fiasco created last Friday when the County ferry was shut down for 12 hours due to staffing shortages. Many Howe Islanders turned up to support the delegation.
The following are the remarks of Bill Robertson, Chair of HIRA to the County Council this morning:
Remarks of HIRA Board Chair Bill Robertson to Frontenac County Council-July 17th 2019
Friday Fiasco–My appearance here today was prompted in part by the absolute fiasco created last Friday evening when out of the blue with absolutely no warning, the County announced at around 5 pm that the County ferry would be down for 12 hours from 6:30 pm to 6:30 am due to staffing issues. Needless to say this is an absolute outrage. Islanders were inconvenienced last Friday beyond belief. They lined up at the small ferry for hours, some reaching home on the Island after 3:00 am and some not reaching home at all. We complement the Township ferry operators for staying at their posts on Friday and indeed working right through their breaks all night long…a fine example for other operators.
I do not want to dwell on the Friday fiasco because it’s obvious to all Islanders that the ferry service which the County is legally obligated to provide has been deteriorating for a long time now at an alarming and dangerous pace; Friday’s fiasco was not a single event, it was merely the latest example of such events.
The Beginning–let’s go back in time
The current 15 car ferry was brought into service in 2004. At that time the County entered into a new operating agreement with the MTO, the ferry’s owner, to have control over and to operate the ferry for the purposes of providing ferry service between the mainland and the Island. The County has a clear and unambiguous obligation to the operate the ferry.
From the very beginning, the ferry was recognized as being a very poor design. The cables which were to run under the deck ran over the deck reducing the width of the ferry to narrower than intended in such a way that it poses a potential danger to all vehicle occupants who perhaps could not in a fire or other dangerous situation exit their vehicles quickly. This is a safety issue. The design is poor; we and the County know that yet here we are with the same ferry.
New Ferry–The drive system on the ferry was poorly designed and this is another well recognized flaw with the ferry. The ideal solution is to start again with a new ferry. Look at Pelee Island, Amherst Island and Wolfe Island. They are all getting new ferries. Politicians are looking after those Islands but I have to ask who is looking after Howe Islanders. Howe Island has been left out in the cold in the new ferry sweep stakes. It’s high time to divert some resources being dedicated to the new Wolfe Island ferry to the Howe Island ferry. A new ferry is the long term solution…..long term being three years. It has to be a priority. The Howe ferry service is an essential service. Planning must start now not three years from now.
New Drive–The practical solution for the ferry we have in the shorter term is to install a new drive system. I understand the possible new and faster system is called a bull system. If it’s a proven system in that it will add speed to each crossing and is reliable, let’s get on with it. Let’s set our collective sights on four or five crossings an hour. With increased development on Howe, commercial farming with large vehicles taking up valuable spaces on the ferry and vrbo making inroads, increasing ferry capacity for this essential service is long overdue.
Management–It seems that the County’s main task when it comes to operating the ferry is staffing. The MTO-County operating agreement is clear in that the County is obligated to ensure that the ferry is operated at all times by competent and qualified personal. Surely this means that the County is legally obligated to make sure that there is adequate staff for regular work and standby staff for recognizable contingencies like staff calling in sick or just failing to turn up.
That surely is management 101. When staffing issues are the excuse for shutting down the ferry then there’s a real problem with management. This needs to be addressed by this Council on an extremely urgent basis.
Processes need to be in place for repair service to be readily available to address all mechanical issues so that repairs can be made quickly to avoid lengthy shut downs.
Communications–The Communications system is not working properly; its outdated. I received the email relating to the Friday fiasco on Saturday morning at 9:00 am. How can the County make communications with ferry users better? Short answer is to upgrade the system so that the status of both ferries can be instantly and accurately communicated to ferry users. What about other communication tools? HIRA has been seeking from the Township since 2016 a camera system whereby users could access real time images of ferry position and length of lineups. The MTO has such devices all along the 401 and at the Wolfe Island docks. These systems are available and should be installed without further delay.
Maintenance—The normal maintenance periods are on Tuesday mornings every two weeks for two hours from 9:30 am to 11:30 am. As we all know the small ferry is under stress because of high water and is limited to transporting a maximum of two cars per trip. An easy fix to easing the pain and inconvenience of shutting the County ferry down during the day for maintenance would be to move the maintenance period to an evening period at least during the period the small ferry is under stress from the high water. There are currently large concrete blocks on the west side car deck of the big ferry to cause the ferry to be lower in the water to permit proper operation of the ramps. The blocks have the effect of reducing ferry capacity from 15 to 12 and sometimes less. The proper operation of the ramps in high water could be accomplished by shortening the ramp cables which would have no effect on ferry capacity. Why hasn’t that been done? Why is the solution during high water to reduce the ferry capacity when another solution is available which has no effect on ferry capacity? When will the blocks be removed?
Conclusion— What HIRA wants to see is the County living up to its legal obligations to provide a reliable ferry service. We want the County to turn the ferry service on it’s ear by ensuring that the Friday fiasco and similar instances are never repeated whether for staff shortages or mechanical issues.
We see service enhancements in the short term by changing the maintenance period, by installing real-time cameras at the ferry terminals, by removing the concrete blocks currently in place, by ensuring there are sufficient operators in place to operate the ferry without undue interruptions, by replacing the drive system with a proper one and by taking such other steps as necessary to ensure the ferry system operates 24/7/365.
We see service enhancements in the longer term as a new ferry.
Specifically, we ask that the County pass a resolution today undertaking on an urgent basis to sit down with the MTO and Provincial Transport Ministry and work out a timetable for the replacement of the drive system by the end of 2019. That same resolution should set a goal of having a new ferry in place within three years.
We also ask that Council set about completing the other enhancements I have outlined here on an expedited basis. Please get back to us within 30 days to tell us what is going on with all our requests. You are in partnership with the MTO so a meaningful and timely meeting with them and the Ministry should not be a problem to arrange particularly when our requests relate to a service with safety implications.
It’s time for the County to live up to its obligation to operate the ferry. That obligation lies with this County Council and equally the consequences of failing in that obligation also lies with this Council.
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