SD70 drowning in water taxi expenses

Water taxi expenses on the West Coast rose more than $100k in one year, prompting the Alberni school district to re-tender the contract.

The Alberni Valley School District has re-tendered its water taxi contract after costs leapt $100,000 in a single year.

While transportation cuts in the City of Port Alberni have focused on busing, one aspect that hasn’t received much consideration is the cost of transporting children living in remote communities on the West Coast to school.

It cost SD70 $400,000, or about $12,000 for each child to take a 10-minute water taxi ride between Meares Island and Tofino last year, the Alberni Valley News has learned.

The Tofino water taxi service picks up 25-35 children from the Village of Opitsaht, bringing them near the government dock in Tofino to attend school. The current water taxi has a capacity of 12 and makes three trips in the morning and afternoon.

School district 70 superintendent Cam Pinkerton blamed the high cost, which leapt by $100,000 in one year, on boat engine repairs and a lack of oversight by the school board.

“One of the reasons why we re-tendered this contract was because of the escalating cost,” Pinkerton said, explaining that massive cuts in provincial funding triggered an internal review of the school district’s expenditures.

“It sort of got away from us.”

The current contract ends June 30. The district is presently reviewing three proposals and a new five-year contract, with option to extend, will take effect in September. The school district will not be on the hook for boat repairs in the new contract.

According to numbers provided by school district secretary-treasurer Lindsay Cheetham, the water taxi bill was $306,000 in the 2009-2010 budget, jumping to $410,000 in 2010-2011 and remaining about the same last year. The final cost for 2012-2013 is not available yet.

In comparison, the school bus system costs about $750,000 and is used by 900 students, costing less then $1,000 per rider. That price tag includes wage, benefits, insurance, fuel and supplies.

“Boats are really expensive,” Pinkerton explained. “It’s 12 times more expensive than the bus.”

The water taxi contract was awarded to the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations eight years ago and the band subcontracted it to the actual service provider. The contract was originally for five years, but was extended three times.

Pinkerton added that student enrolment in Port Alberni has been dropping for the last 10 years, but Tofino has seen the opposite.

“Tofino is the only growth area in the school district,” Pinkerton said. “There were 125 students three years ago and now we have 201.”

Port Alberni will see a four per cent drop in enrolment this year, he added.

reporter@albernivalleynews.com