Busiest times on the ferry this weekend

If you’re heading home after the long weekend, it pays to plan ahead.  For a guide to the best times to travel, this is how the ferries looked last year. Be prepared though, 2017 looks even busier so far!Labour Day

 

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Ferry fares – what next?

Just last week, our new Minister of Transportation pledged that the NDP’s election promises of a 15% reduction in fares on minor routes, a fare freeze on the major routes and a return to free travel for BC Seniors on Mondays to Thursdays would all be honoured “in the next few weeks”. But it seems that pledge may take longer to deliver, and it could easily be early 2018 before those price cuts can be realised.

Ferry fares are regulated by the BC Ferry Commissioner acting (we’re told) independently of the BC Government and BC Ferries. At four year intervals, the Commissioner determines the maximum level of fare increase that BC Ferries can charge in order to bridge any anticipated gap between costs and revenues.  After many years of above-inflation increases, the price cap (the maximum permitted increase) was set in 2016 at 1.9% annually from 2016 until 2019.

That figure will have been based on a range of assumptions about operating costs, funding for new ferries and changes in expected traffic levels. But perhaps the most unpredictable factor is fuel prices, so at the start of each four-year period, the Ferry Commissioner determines a baseline cost per litre for fuel and as prices fluctuate, any underspend or overspend is banked in a regulated fund known as the Fuel Deferral Account.  If fuel prices rise above the set level, the deferral account goes into deficit until such time as prices come down below the set price to sufficiently burn off the debt. If that looks unlikely, BC Ferries will apply a surcharge on fares to bring the deficit down.

The opposite is also true. If fuel prices stay below the set price for a long period, a credit builds up in the deferral account to be used either to shield against future high prices, or it is returned to customers as a fuel rebate on fares.  That’s good news for customers, and since 2015 we have been enjoying rebates of 1% – increasing to 2.9% from April 2016.

These rebates have reduced the credit balance in the deferral account from its $6 million ‘high’ at the start of 2016 and have continued to drain the deferral account despite the acccount returning to zero by the Fall. Since then, the account has been sliding further into deficit as fuel prices have crept up but the rebates to customers have continued.

How long can this go on? Well, it’s entirely possible that BC Ferries was told not to “rock the boat” by ditching the fare rebate ahead of the provincial election. But now they are surely heading to the point where they will be told that the 2.9% rebate must go – and if bulk fuel prices continue to rise it’s entirely possible we could be seeing a fuel surcharge in its place sometime soon.

So, that good news from the NDP could be pre-empted by the 2.9% rebate on fares disappearing first, meaning the fares we pay could go up before their election commitment kicks in.  What cannot be reversed is the decision in April to cancel any fare increase in 2017. That decision stands, and the price cap for 2018 and 2019 remains at 1.9% each year. So, will the NDP wait until that 1.9% fare increase is due to kick in next April before delivering their promised fare cut? Informed sources now suggest that they will.

What a difference a day makes…..

After one of the busiest days of the year this Thursday, it’s amazing to see how much ferrycameasier it is to get on the ferry on a Friday! At 11.15 yesterday, the line-up was right back to the campground. Today it didn’t even reach the overload sign.

Too bad the half fare discount for seniors doesn’t apply on Fridays – it’s the one day of the week that there’s space on most ferries leaving the island. And no overloads means fewer delays too.

It really does pay to leave your trip into town until Friday at this time of the year. Or Saturday. Just look at how much more space there is!

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Busiest summer on our ferry since 2010

September’s traffic statistics published recently by BC Ferries show that vehicle traffic was 5.2% up on September 2015 and passenger traffic up 4.2% – confirming that summer 2016 has been the busiest for ferry traffic since 2010, and explaining why our ferry line-ups have been exceptional this year.

Between June and September, more than 129,000 vehicles were carried this year – 5,000 more than last summer, and 8,000 more than Summer 2014, the year following our ferry cuts. The last time our summer ferry traffic was busier was 2010, when nearly 135,000 vehicles were recorded.  Since 2010, ferry traffic has been in steady decline due to the combined effect of high fares and a weakened economy.

Passenger numbers have followed a similar trend – with over 292,000 passengers carried between June and September – up by 5,000 from last year and a massive 15,000 more than Summer 2014 – and the highest since 2010, when 306,000 passengers travelled.

At first sight, this is great news for the longer term sustainability of our ferry service – but we know that traffic on our late evening ferries is stubbornly low and showing little sign of improving. The majority of new traffic appears to be focussed on our daytime ferries – sailings that are already full for much of the year – and in peak summer that simply means longer line-ups and more missed ferries.

Summer 2016 also saw the reinstatement (on a 2-year trial) of the early afternoon weekend sailings during July and August. They appear to have been well used, and will return next year. Once we have detailed traffic numbers from BC Ferries, we aim to provide a detailed appraisal of the impact they have had on weekend traffic.

Monthly traffic statistics can be found on our Route 19 Performance page.

BC Ferries announces new fares promotion

BC Ferries has announced a new fleetwide fares promotion offering 50% off standard vehicle fares on selected sailings between November 14 and December 18. These discounts will apply to vehicle fares only (not passenger fares) and apply to cars, motorcycles, trucks, SUVs, vans and recreational vehicles (up to the first 20 feet of vehicle length). The extra per-foot charges for overlength vehicles and commercial vehicles will not be discounted.

For Gabriola, this means the standard round-trip vehicle fare of $26.95 reduces to $13.50, with Experience Card holders paying the same $13.50 fare instead of their regular discounted rate of $17.20 on the following sailings leaving Nanaimo:

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A 50% reduction in vehicle fares will also be available on either ferry route between Nanaimo and Vancouver, cutting the regular fare from $56.45 to $28.25 on the following sailings:

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According to BC Ferries, the choice of sailings on the Gabriola route is a balance between offering reductions on lower utilised sailings and  trying to keep the promotion relatively straightforward across the system – so once again, there will be no discounted sailings on Fridays, or after 10am on Sundays.

Your Ferry Advisory Committee continues to press BC Ferries to discount our late evening fares on a permanent basis, to encourage greater use of under-utilised ferry capacity and help reduce some of the overloading on daytime sailings.

Ferry Advisory Committee wants ferry line-up moved from Taylor Bay Road

Gabriola Ferry Advisory Committee is calling for the relocation of the traffic line-up from Taylor Bay Road to North Road in the light of serious safety concerns this past year.

In June 2016, FAC members highlighted their concerns to BC Ferries, but since the waiting area is on the highway, the corporation has no powers to regulate where vehicles wait for the ferry. FAC representatives met with Ministry officials on June 14 asking for a review of traffic arrangements, suggesting a site meeting during the summer months, when traffic is heaviest. A formal request from the FAC followed at the end of June.taylorbay

The government’s contract with BC Ferries commits the Province to providing space for 76 auto equivalents (AEQs) in the line-up (one ferry load), but drivers leaving gaps in the line-up mean that the last few spaces are now beyond the recognised turning bay, resulting in dangerous conditions caused by drivers making unsafe U-turns to ensure their place on the ferry.

The problem was first highlighted by the FAC in 2014, when government cuts led to long tail-backs of traffic waiting for fewer ferries. At that time, Ministry staff offered a short-term solution in the form of advisory signage to a new U-turn point at Ivory Way, together with extra mandatory signs to prevent U-turns along Taylor Bay Road. Despite the extra signage, and reinstatement of the full daytime ferry service, the volume of traffic waiting to board the ferry continues to grow – and during the summer months, line-ups stretching to Ivory Way are a regular occurrence.

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Photo : Gabriola Sounder

Summer 2016 has seen further growth in ferry traffic, with long queues most days along Taylor Bay Road. Increasing numbers of drivers are making U-turns on Taylor Bay Road, leading to at least one accident and several near-misses. RCMP officers have cautioned or ticketed drivers making dangerous and illegal U-turns on the highway.

The FAC believes Taylor Bay Road is the wrong place for ferry traffic. “Its narrow width, coupled with a series of bends and blind summits makes it a dangerous place to encounter parked vehicles, let alone a vehicle making a U-turn across both traffic lanes,” says John Hodgkins, FAC Chair “and, since only 20% of ferry traffic originates from the Taylor Bay direction, that means at least 3 out of every 4 vehicles have to turn somewhere once the line-up rounds the corner into Taylor Bay Road.”

The FAC considers the only long-term solution is to take traffic away from Taylor Bay Road and create the line-up on North Road or South Road, where the majority of ferry traffic originates and there’s more space available. As FAC Vice-Chair Steven Earle puts it “Experience this summer has demonstrated that it’s not possible to safely manage ferry traffic on Taylor Bay Road, and a new solution has to be found and implemented – ideally before summer 2017”

The Ferry Advisory Committee has developed a range of options for consideration and is asking the Ministry of Transportation & Infrastructure to prioritise a detailed appraisal of the alternatives.

Click on the image below to download a copy of the FAC submission.ferry-traffic-management-sept-2016

2016 – A bonanza year for BC Ferries ?

The publication of BC Ferries’ traffic statistics for July 2016 signals continuing traffic growth on most BC Ferries’ routes – including Gabriola.  If the underlying traffic recovery continues, BC Ferries can expect a 5% annual growth in vehicle traffic, while passenger numbers are expected to increase between 3% and 4%.

BC Ferry Commissioner, Gord Macatee, puts this increase down to a number of factors:-

  • the dramatic drop in oil prices (which shows no sign of reversing any time soon)
  • price of gasoline at the pump has fallen (encouraging more highway travel)
  • US economy performing well (encouraging more travel)
  • the low Canadian dollar (encouraging Canadians to stay home and Americans to visit)
  • consumers with more disposable income as a result of lower fuel prices
  • the requirement for Americans to have a passport, a border crossing concern, is less of an issue as many more now have one.

Of course, we know that most of the extra tourist traffic ends up on the major ferry routes between Vancouver and Vancouver Island. Since January,  traffic between Vancouver and Victoria is up by 5.8% compared to the same period last year, and on routes linking Vancouver with Nanaimo traffic has risen 6.4%. That’s more than 10% up on traffic levels back in 2013 (the last full year before the 50% charge was introduced for Seniors)

What’s happened on the Gabriola ferry?

In the 7 months since January, vehicle traffic on the Gabriola route has gone up by 3.2% compared to the same period last year – while passenger traffic has grown by just 1.1%. During July, the number of vehicles carried increased by 3.8% compared to July 2015, and passengers were up by 1.8%.

Little wonder we are seeing longer line-ups this summer – as much of the extra traffic appears to be heading for the busiest sailings.  Of course, we get overloads every summer, typically between 9am and 1pm from Gabriola, and back from Nanaimo between 3pm and 6pm. But this year, the early morning and mid-afternoon ferries appear busier too, as people try and avoid the worst of the morning line-ups.

The difference is that, unlike most other routes, traffic to Gabriola has yet to recover to the levels recorded before the service cuts of April 2014.  Vehicle traffic between January and July 2016 is still 1.2% lower than the equivalent period in 2013 – though it has shown signs of returning to 2013 levels in the past couple of months – whereas in the past 3 years traffic has increased by more than 10% between Nanaimo and Vancouver, and at least 7% to both Salt Spring and Quadra Islands (two routes with similar traffic volumes to Gabriola).

Passenger numbers since January have, however, returned to 2013 levels – despite the initial impact of the 50% Seniors’ fare, which caused a 5% slump in passenger traffic during 2014.  So, even with the recent upturn in vehicle numbers, it seems the long-term trend is more of us travelling as walk-on passengers, resulting in fewer vehicle fares for BC Ferries.

Good for the environment; not so good for BC Ferries.