Ferry cuts : One day older; not much wiser

Ferry Advisory Committee Chairs met today (November 19) with Ministry of Transportation officials to learn more of the upcoming community engagement on the BC Coastal Ferry service.  The hope that we would be reassured by evidence of the business case behind the Province’s plan to axe $14m worth of lifeline ferry sailings quickly evaporated as the background to the plan was described.

“Ferry service is a crucial part of BC’s transportation network….. an essential social and commercial link for residents, their families and businesses in coastal communities” says the opening statement in the consultation document. So, naturally, the FAC Chairs hoped to learn more about the socio-economic research that underpinned the long-awaited proposals.  Maybe that was too much to hope for. The driving force behind the plan remains the attainment of a target set by the Ferry Commissioner in May 2012 to allow annual fare rises to be held at 4% each year until 2015 – and the method of identifying $30 million net savings by March 2016 has largely been shaped by BC Ferries’ own business analysis alone.

The first $4m of the $30m savings target had already been delivered with the removal of lightly-used winter weekend sailings on the Duke Point – Tsawwassen route and a handful of seasonal sailings on other Lower Mainland routes in 2012.  So last year’s consultation focussed on the methodology for identifying the remaining $26m – but then the May 2013 elections led to a $7.1m bailout by the Province to defer the cuts until 2014. Now, we learn that $14m has to be found from the minor and northern ferry routes, leaving $4.9m to be squeezed out of the major routes by 2016.  The fact that the Duke Point – Tsawwassen route alone lost $25 million last year would suggest that maybe the axe should have been swung more strongly in that direction in the first place.

There has been no serious attempt to measure the impact these cuts will have on residents, families and businesses in coastal communities. But will the $14m action plan deliver long-term stability to our ferry system?  Many think not, and the fact that the Ferry Commissioner’s calculations assumed ferry usage had stabilised in 2012 simply reinforces the difficult truth – that crippling ferry fares pushed ferry traffic down by 1% in 2012 and signs are that in 2013 another 1% has disappeared.  Further 4% fare increases each year in 2014 and 2015 is unlikely to reverse that trend – and with service reductions on top, the Ferry Commissioner’s four-year projections start to look flimsy at best.

Service Reductions

The 2013 Community Engagement process has raised expectations that coastal communities will be able to influence decisions on where the axe would fall, using local knowledge to minimise the impact on residents and businesses.   Alas, as many suspected, the Province has decided which sailings are to go, leaving Ferry Advisory Committees to “refine the schedule of remaining sailings to best meet community needs.”  Some challenge.

Consider the proposals for our own Route 19 between Nanaimo and Gabriola.  $400,000 net annual saving is the target set by the Province – and taking BC Ferries’ assumption that 25% of revenue on each of the axed sailings will be lost (as opposed to transferring to earlier sailings) – the actual cost savings must be even higher.  On BCF’s recommendation, the Province has decided the last two sailings every evening should go, together with the first round trip each day on Saturdays and Sundays. There’s no doubt these sailings are among the quietest, but has any consideration been given to the impact on shift workers, students and businesses that rely on these sailings? It appears not.

So realistically, what can Ferry Advisory Committees hope to influence as they “refine the schedule of remaining sailings to best meet community needs”?  That’s still unclear, as no indication has been given of how the $400,000 net annual saving has been arrived at.  FAC representatives asked for details of costs and revenue for each sailing.  We wait and see.  One thing is certain; whatever “refining” is possible, the bottom line still has to be $400,000 .

And what of the other proposals that make up the Medium Term Plans?

Seniors’ discount

Free travel for BC Seniors on Mondays to Thursdays is to go. In its place from April 1 will be a 50% discount fare – also limited to Monday to Thursday.  Not clear from the Discussion Guide is the fact that Experience Card holders will receive 50% off the already discounted passenger fare,  equating to a $3 round-trip fare at today’s fare levels.

The business case?  Uncertain, to say the least.  Out of the $15m currently paid for seniors’  travel each year to BC Ferries, the Province “assumes”  that passenger resistance (journeys no longer made) will reduce the savings from $7.5m to $6m.  Does that take account of the vehicle fares that would be lost as well? “We believe so.”

During the 2012 consultation, some had suggested that the BC Seniors discount could be reduced if it meant that ferry fares could be kept lower across the board. Given that the 2014 and 2015 fare increases are already fixed, it will be 2016 and beyond before any benefit materialises.

Gaming on BC Ferries

Unlikely to ever appear on Quinsam, plans to pilot gaming machines on routes to the Lower Mainland are already attracting much attention.  The Province promises that net gaming revenue on board BC Ferries would be “reinvested in the ferry system, reducing pressure on future fare increases.”   No work has yet been done to quantify how much that net revenue might be.

Supplemental Passenger-only Ferry Services

Provincial hopes that privately run water taxis and passenger ferries “may help reduce the impacts of service reductions to BC Ferries’ routes” were largely dashed when it was confirmed that there would be no Provincial money on the table to support them.  Without new funding sources, there’s little chance of securing a water taxi service to replace axed sailings.

New pricing initiatives

BC Ferries’ new ticketing technology (due to come online by 2017) promises the opportunity of variable pricing by time of day, or day of week.  But would it work on the Gabriola route, with no ticket booth on the island?  Likely not.

What happens next?

Some have already questioned the value of responding to a consultation when the outcome is a foregone conclusion.   Ferry Advisory Committee Chairs left today’s meeting hopeful, if not optimistic, that at least some of the shortcomings in the process to date might be addressed before the Ministry come to call on local communities over the next few weeks.

One message made abundantly clear to the Province today was that arbitrary axing of evening ferries would lead to severe hardship and life-changing decisions for some in our communities; we have an opportunity to reinforce that message on December 10 and that opportunity should not be passed up.

John Hodgkins, Gabriola FAC Chair

(Quotations in italics are taken from the BC Coastal Ferries Community Engagement Discussion Guide)

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