Unions, NDP blast foreign SeaBus contract

The Burrard Otter SeaBus is due for replacement in 2014. - Outlook files
The Burrard Otter SeaBus is due for replacement in 2014.
— image credit: Outlook files

The BC Liberal government won’t wade into the debate over TransLink’s awarding of the new SeaBus contract to a foreign company, despite continued attacks from labour groups and B.C. New Democrats who say the deal proves the government’s touted BC Jobs Plan is a sham.

Last week, Damen Shipyards Group of the Netherlands edged out North Vancouver’s Allied Shipbuilders by $2 million with their $25-million bid to build a replacement SeaBus slated for service on Burrard Inlet in 2014.

The deal marks the first time in the ferry service’s 36-year history that one of its boats will be built off B.C. shores.

Last week, the Canadian Auto Workers Union, which includes 80 SeaBus employees, joined the Shipyard General Workers Federation in accusing the government of turning its back on local industry while failing to account for significant economic spinoff benefits had Allied’s Dollarton yard been chosen over the Dutch company.

“There is no reason that this ship could not have been built here in B.C. — allowing TransLink to make this thoughtless decision is a reflection of poor leadership from the provincial government,” CAW president Ken Lewenza said. “While the B.C. government is touting its BC Jobs Plan, it’s also sending public funds offshore — money that could have been used to support job creation here in the province.”

But the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure insists the choice to go with an offshore company to replace the aging Burrard Beaver SeaBus was not a decision of the province, but of the TransLink board.

“It’s their operational issue,” ministry spokeswoman Kate Trotter told The Outlook Friday. “It’s not a governance issue.”

TransLink says awarding the bid to Damen was simple math and, with Allied and Damen being the only two qualified companies seeking the contract, the pickings from this province were slim.

“We did not get participation other than the one bidder from British Columbia and they weren’t the low-cost bidder,” TransLink board chair Nancy Olewiler told The Outlook Friday. “Our job is to use the taxpayer money wisely and the Dutch company was the low-cost bidder.”

Where possible, Damen will use locally sourced materials, Olewiler said.

“We sought B.C. companies, we phoned and said ‘Can you bid?’ But they all said ‘I’m sorry we don’t have the capacity because we’re too busy.’”

Allied president Chuck Ko said he was “aghast” to learn his yard had been passed over for the contract. He said Damen was able to undercut his bid by $2 million because the Dutch shipbuilder will take advantage of cheap Asian labour, likely building the vessel in China.

“This would be [TransLink’s] fourth ship so they were very specific with what they wanted and they said you had to go to specific suppliers and get this specific equipment, that’s how tight the spec was,” Ko said. “So the only difference would be the labour costs. Our employees are high-wage earners, and they deserve it.”

It was too important a contract for him to lose, Ko said, not only for the work it would have ensured his North Vancouver yard, but for the new training and infrastructure upgrades it might have heralded as well.

“There’s only so many projects of this magnitude available to a facility like ourselves and when you lose one there usually isn’t one right behind it,” he said. “The opportunity to upgrade our facility and improve our capability is lost and you can’t put a dollar value on that. We’re going to lose the ability to undertake that sort of work in the future.”

Despite the province’s collective “no comment” on SeaBus outsourcing, the issue was pre-election fodder for the B.C. NDP, with North Vancouver New Democrat candidate Craig Keating calling TransLink’s decision “disappointing” and calling the B.C. government’s avoidance of the issue “evidence of a lack of leadership” at the top.

“The current TransLink structure is something the provincial government is 100% entirely responsible for,” Keating told The Outlook, accusing the government of “shifting the blame” onto the regional transit provider.

“Here was a practical step to put some meat on the jobs plan and an opportunity to make the economy better on the North Shore, and what we find is the jobs plan is just a lot of photo ops and news releases rather than substance.”

New Democrat transportation critic Harry Bains said import tariffs on an overseas-built SeaBus could well eclipse the $2 million savings TransLink says it will accrue by going Dutch.

“There is generally a 25-per-cent tariff on ships less than 129 metres in length, and that could mean more than $6 million in additional costs for this vessel,” Bains said, noting the current SeaBus vessels are 35 metres long.

Olewiler denied the federal import tax would bump up the final tally, but said it was the first she had heard of it on this project.

“I’m not aware of anything of that order of magnitude,” Olewiler said, noting such taxes and general maintenance costs would have been considered by TransLink during the bid process.

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