Service proves attractive selling tool for realtors

Nanaimo a bedroom community of Vancouver?

Yes, say Vancouver Island realtors – if the three-month-old HarbourLynx foot ferry service linking the two downtowns survives and thrives.

The Harbour City is a mere 25 kilometres from Vancouver, across sometimes stormy ocean. Going between the two has mostly been slow or expensive.

A 25-minute return flight between the city centres costs about $120; a round trip on BC Ferries vehicle service takes at least 21/2 to three hours one way, and mainland terminals are an hour or more from downtown Vancouver.

Photo courtesy HarbourLynxc
The three-month-old HarbourLynx ferry is making it easier for commuters to work in Vancouver while still enjoying their lower-cost lifestyle on the Island.

The HarbourLynx downtown-to-downtown trip takes 80 minutes and costs $200 for a book of 10 tickets (or $25 one-way, $45 if the return ticket is bought at the same time).

Suddenly, living on the Island and commuting to a Vancouver job is a more attractive alternative for mainland residents facing large tax bills on quickly inflating property and long commutes in gas guzzlers on roadways that become more choked each year.

“I knew people who worked in downtown Vancouver and bought here when the last foot ferry service was running,” says Nanaimo realtor Wayne Korb. “The commute was shorter than driving in from their former residence in Surrey.” And the property prices – and taxes and cost of living – are lower.

The last foot ferry service only lasted a year. Although it enjoyed a successful Nanaimo-Vancouver run, it was committed to maintaining a Victoria link, too – a cost that eventually sank the business.

In the decade since the first foot ferry fiasco, mainland commuting times have become longer, and housing much more expensive.

That’s why Sue Farlinger and family remain on the Island. She lives in Nanoose Bay, 20 minutes north of Nanaimo, and works for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

A downtown-to-downtown air link from Nanaimo to Vancouver made it possible for her to take advantage of a job opening on the mainland while allowing her large family to continue living on Vancouver Island.

She did not move her family to the mainland because she would have had to move to a far-flung suburb to find accommodation large enough for her five children, and face a long commute in any event. She commutes several times weekly using HarbourLynx as often as she can and considers air service as a backup.

Right now, transportation services are good enough to open mainland jobs to Islanders, while a reliable foot-ferry link opens up Island housing and lifestyle to mainlanders, says Korb.

Someone who owns an older home in Surrey now valued at $350,000 to $450,000 can buy the same house for about $180,000 in Nanaimo. “If they have equity they can buy here outright and pay cash, and put money in the bank,” says Korb. The lower cost of living and lower property tax burden make up for the increased transportation cost to someone willing to commute.

HarbourLynx service can make that commitment easier, says HarbourLynx general manager Joe Jansen.

Jansen himself is a commuter, so has a realistic view of what’s workable. For years he lived on one side of Georgia Strait and worked on the other. He opted for a four-day work week rather than a daily commute, an arrangement he’s continued now that his home is in Victoria and job in Nanaimo.

“The secondary staging is critical to a commute,” he says.

Commuters become less willing the longer the wait to board, the longer it takes to unload the vehicles, the longer it takes to clear the terminal and the longer in transit at the other end.

Those waits eat into personal time, and soon commuters begin to resent the time away from friends and family. A long commute leaves no time for hobbies, for integrating into the community. “You just wind up working longer,” says Jansen.

While HarbourLynx rids commuters of the staging time, there’s only enough traffic to justify three round-trip sailings a day.

“If you have a job where you absolutely have to be in at 9 a.m. and absolutely can’t leave before 5 p.m., and absolutely have to be there every day, you can’t count on HarbourLynx,” says Jansen.

HarbourLynx has one ship, a 40-metre catamaran that can carry 300 passengers and travel 30 knots. Its lighter weight and higher speed make it more vulnerable to vagaries of weather and dangers of tide.“A slower, heavier ship can hit a log and just carry on,” says Jansen.

For HarbourLynx, such a collision can mean lengthy repairs – and no sailings.

That will change, says Korb, with the addition of a second HarbourLynx vessel.

But passenger loads need to build before HarbourLynx invests in a second vessel, says Jansen. The goal is to build to an average of 125-150 passengers per run from the current 75-80.

“The passenger numbers just aren’t there yet,”Jansen says.

HarbourLynx is concentrating on attracting more customers now using vehicle ferry or air service. Korb sees many other markets that could expand the ferry customer base:

* Mainlanders who don’t use their sailboats as often as they’d like because it now takes them too long to commute to the marina, and once there, face another chunk of time beating their way into Georgia Strait to reach less-populated waters.

“From Ladysmith to Qualicum, you’re never more than 15 minutes from a marina,” Korb points out. And Island marinas have lower fees and are located where there’s less sea traffic and more accessible coastline.

* Recreational golfers who can’t get tee times on overcrowded mainland courses. Or business golfers who’d like to show clients more of the West Coast lifestyle.

* Weekend trippers now turned off by round-trip transit time on a vehicle ferry could be attracted to a foot ferry-rental car combo that results in less time behind the wheel and more fishing, boating, biking or hiking.

* Day trippers from the Island who want access to hot shopping in Vancouver; city dwellers who’d like a day exploring Nanaimo’s charming harbour or being pampered in a luxury spa followed by lunch overlooking the ocean and a walk on an uncrowded beach. Mainland transit opens up Parksville beaches to day trippers anywhere along Vancouver’s Skytrain route.

* Mid-island air travellers. The foot ferry deposits travellers a 20-minute taxi ride from the Vancouver airport. They don’t have to face the long vehicle ferry trip or the expense of an overnight hotel stay and long-term parking.

* Mainland businesses that find vehicle travel time a disincentive to doing business on the Island; and vice-versa.

* Mainlanders looking for weekend or vacation cottages or retirement homes.

“People just don’t know how many more options have opened to them because of the foot ferry” says Korb. “HarbourLynx has to tell them about it.”

It’s a great selling tool for realtors, he says, pointing to the Comox real estate boom that followed direct and convenient daily flights to Calgary. Realtors there began advertising weekend, vacation and retirement properties in Comox, and well-heeled buyers responded.

Once the buzz builds, predicts Korb, “others will quickly jump on the bandwagon.”