STONE: ‘Decisions were right ones’

Trial by fire for rookie MLA handed transportation portfolio

Kamloops-South Thompson MLA and Transportation Minister Todd Stone and Kamloops-North Thompson MLA and Minister of Health Terry Lake have both held positions of power in the province for two years.

Kamloops-South Thompson MLA and Transportation Minister Todd Stone and Kamloops-North Thompson MLA and Minister of Health Terry Lake have both held positions of power in the province for two years.

By Cam Fortems

Kamloops This Week

Kamloops-South Thompson MLA and Transportation Minister Todd Stone founded a successful technology company and sheepishly admits to having two BlackBerry phones.

They don’t leave his pocket during a hour-long lunch interview, however, and he won’t replace the analog timepiece on his wrist with an Apple Watch anytime soon to squeeze more productivity from his schedule.

During the legislative session, the rookie MLA with the second-largest capital budget in cabinet — after Kamloops counterpart and Health Minister Terry Lake— arrives back home late on a Thursday night, sometimes into the early morning hours.

He hits the road back to Victoria on Sunday afternoon.

When the legislature is not meeting, he can stretch those Sundays a few hours later.

Saturdays are typically reserved for attending events in the city and surrounding rural areas, including Savona and Chase.

On those precious Sunday mornings at home with wife Chantelle and their three daughters, the Blackberries are nowhere in sight.

“For the little bit of time I’m home, my wife and kids need me to be home — not just physically,” he says.

Little more than two years ago, Stone was a successful small businessman from Kamloops, a political unknown provincially who wanted to be in politics since high school, but had never held any kind of office.

His resume was burnished by his entrepreneurial success, but he was best known as a decades-long friend of Premier Christy Clark, going back to their days in the youth wing of the B.C. Liberal Party.

“If people thought they could take advantage of a neophyte minister, they’ve learned otherwise,” said University of Victoria political-science professor emeritus Norman Ruff, noting Stone’s handling of B.C. Ferries as his toughest challenge.

“The ferries would be enough for any minister.”

Stone cut 8,000 sailings from B.C. Ferries’ schedule, cut seniors and employee discounts and axed a tourist sailing direct from Port Hardy to Bella Coola that critics and operators in the Chilcotin say starved their businesses.

He jumped into the complex strike at the Port of Vancouver — despite the fact it was a federal facility — and eventually created a new position to oversee licensing and set hauling rates after truckers complained they were being starved in cutthroat competition.

Stone ushered in a new 10-year transportation plan, raised highway speed limits and pushed for a law to punish left-lane hogs.

From the little (getting webcams installed within days of public complaints about the Halston Connector due to work on Overlanders Bridge) to the large (quickly solving an issue over First Nations remains that halted construction on the Trans-Canada Highway east of Kamloops for more than a year), the rookie minister has a reputation as a tireless worker who gets things done.

“He’s moved quickly,” said Radio NL news director Jim Harrison

“I think he’s a powerful guy in cabinet.”

Stone acknowledges the position carries its benefits in good-news announcements of transportation improvements — the Minister of Big Cheques and Smiles.

“In the Ministry of Transportation, it’s generally a lot of positive stuff and making announcements and strategic investment”” he says.

Then there is B.C. Ferries.

Stone sees progress in the fact the B.C. Ferries commissioner is forecasting fares to climb only at the rate of inflation for the next four years.

“I’m proud of the fact we’re the government — frankly, after 20 years of successive NDP and Liberal governments, we’re fixing ferries for the long term,” he says.

That “fix” included those eliminated sailings, an end of the free rides for seniors Mondays through Thursdays and axing the service from the North Island to Bella Coola — a route that was only operating four months a year, losing $7.5 million a year and had just a 30 per cent utilization rate.

“If people thought they could take advantage of a neophyte minister, they’ve learned otherwise,” said University of Victoria political-science professor emeritus Norman Ruff, noting Stone’s handling of B.C. Ferries as his toughest challenge.

“It was a tough, tough decision because of the communities it served,” Stone says.

“All the businesses we were told would close — that hasn’t transpired.”

A study commissioned by West Chilcotin Tourism Association paints another picture, one of drastically lower passenger numbers and a devastating blow to regional tourism.

The replacement vessel carries only 16 vehicles. The study found passenger numbers decreased by nearly 50 per cent and tourism dollars dropped by $4 million.

“A lot of businesses have gone under,” said Petrus Rykes, who operates the Eagle’s Nest Resort in the Chilcotin and heads the association.

Rykes said Stone has carried the Liberal message of cuts and has been uncompromising,

“It’s like talking to a brick wall.

“They’ve [Liberals] been in so long, they’ve become arrogant and aren’t listening to the people.”

Stone is unapologetic about the changes and is forecasting better seas ahead for B.C. Ferries.

“The decisions I made were probably the decisions I agonized about more than anything else I’ve done in the ministry,” he said.

“But, the decisions I made were the right ones.”

The province and Stone became involved in the Port of Vancouver dispute last year, despite the fact everything on the dock is federal.

In addition to Ottawa’s involvement was Unifor, which represented some truckers, the B.C. Trucking Association and independent drivers.

“He assumed a leadership role early on,” said Louise Yako, president of B.C. Trucking Association, which represents transport companies.

“It was a very difficult issue. There are so many factors and questions of jurisdiction.”

One of the results was the creation of a container trucking commissioner who issues licences and identifies rates to ensure better working conditions for drivers.

While the Liberals may style themselves as the free-enterprise party, Stone’s solution instead entailed more regulation to ensure better outcomes for drivers in return for peace at the docks.

NL’s Harrison acknowledged the city is home to power in cabinet it hasn’t seen in decades, reaching back as far as the 1980s, when Bud Smith and Claude Richmond were senior ministers in the Social Credit government. But, he said, today’s power couple hasn’t brought the same benefits.

“I don’t know if you can draw a direct parallel. When Claude and Bud were in cabinet, we had real action here,” Harrison said.

“I look at RIH — I always want more for my community. I was critical that other communities received more in capital.”

That action during Richmond’s early tenure included bringing the B.C. Lottery Corporation to Kamloops in 1985 — estimated in a recent report to be a $1.1-billion benefit to the city’s economy.

The Social Credit government of the day also built the Coquihalla Highway through to Kamloops, cementing the city’s status as a hub city for road and rail.

While Stone hasn’t relocated any Crown corporations, he did move the lottery corporation’s executive back to the city.

Newly installed CEO Jim Lightbody recently said four of eight senior executives will be based out of Kamloops, as will the next chief financial officer

That includes the CEO, who was previously based out of Vancouver.

“It was drifting away from a head office in some respects,” Stone told lottery corporation employees gathered in the downtown building for an anniversary event.

While he’s had success on the provincial stage and at home, critics blame Stone and the B.C. Liberal government for failing to fix the Lower Mainland’s gridlocked road and commuter system.

A TransLink plebiscite to raise sales taxes to pay for more transit and buses failed. There is no plan to fix mounting problems and both municipal and provincial governments are pointing at each other.

The responsibility for TransLink was last month taken from Stone’s ministry and handed to Peter Fassbender, the new minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development.