Sheila Malcolmson, Islands Trust Council Chair, writes:

On Tuesday in Victoria I joined with eight coastal Regional District Chairs to keep ferry issues on the provincial agenda. Over time we’ve met and described to the Ferry Commissioner, provincial Transportation Minister and the Premier what damage fare hikes have on coastal communities and economies. Sometimes our membership represents 70% of BC’s population (when Metro Vancouver Regional District joins in); this week it was Chairs from the Powell River, Capital,  Comox Valley, Mount Waddington, Sunshine Coast, Strathcona, Nanaimo, and Cowichan Valley Regional Districts.

To describe the impact on islanders, in both meetings I reported that fares have gone up so much that the Gabriola ferry route collected $1 million more in vehicle fares in 2012 than in 2004, even though ridership has fallen (this is the Gabriola Ferry Advisory Committee’s analysis). In the same time period, operating expenses increased by $2.6 million, with no extra service or benefit for ferry users. Since 2003’s Coastal Ferry Act, fares went up an average of 80% on 10 minor routes in the Islands Trust Area, and hiked as high as 133% on some routes and rate classes. Ferry fares already cover 85% of operating costs, more than any form of public transportation. Ridership, tourism, businesses, and families all suffer.

The Coastal RD Chairs outlined similar impacts in their own communities, saying fares had reached a tipping point long ago. The April 1 fare hike, at two-to-three times the rate of inflation, will further hammer down traffic and the well-being of our ferry-dependent communities. The Chairs argued there is a Provincial economic interest in moving goods, beyond just the well-being of ferry-dependent communities.

Meeting first with Transportation Minister Mary Polak, who lived in Haida Gwaii for three years, the Minister said she understands ferry-dependent communities and agreed with all our concerns, but won’t find more funds for BC Ferries in the near term and said some service reductions are a certainty (but not an end in themselves).

Pointing out the Crofton ferry leaves traffic at the dock daily when its weight restriction is exceeded (i.e. deck space is still available), I said this points to a vessel / route-fit problem. But with no vision for what BC Ferries will BE in the future (let alone having the wrong boats servicing some routes), we might get saddled with huge capital expenditures to buy carbon-copy replacements of the same boats that don’t suit our routes. The Ferry Commissioner flagged this in his 2012 report – we need to look way ahead and re-envision ferry service before investing in vessel replacement.

The Minister agreed with the need for a vision, but articulated only tweaks like Liquefied Natural Gas and sharing vessels between routes. Asked about a truly integrated regional transportation plan, having public transit fit with highways, rail and marine transit, the Minister said the Province is increasingly faced with the need to develop better interconnections, but said government gets silo-ed.

Most interesting to me was the Minister’s final comment that “It may be there’s a future decision to increase the portion of ferry costs funded provincially, but the challenge you face is more fundamental – if there are no more fare increases, there are still rising costs, like all programs operated by the Province, most with no charge to the user”. This has been exactly our point –  other provincial programs don’t get cut if they don’t run a profit, and it’s unfair for the Province to train its cost-cutting sights on ferries to the exclusion of other provincial infrastructure, especially when ferry users are already paying 85% of operating costs.

Meeting next with three NDP MLAs representing coastal communities, North Island MLA Claire Trevena started by saying we didn’t need an expensive consultation program to learn “we need ferries”, and says she wants to roll back April’s 4.1% fare increase.  Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons said he’ll advocate for a fare rollback, hoping “the cupboard isn’t bare”, and thinks Interior taxpayers will support that if new ferries are built in BC to support the economy. “We don’t expect only the sick to pay for health care”, Simons said. Esquimalt-Royal Roads MLA Maurine Karagianis is the new NDP ferry critic; having family on Mayne Island, she described seeing first-hand the effect of the quasi-private, user pay ideology over the past decade. Saying the NDP will talk more substantially in its platform, she agreed ferries are an important part of the provincial infrastructure and economy, and said a 5-30 year vision for BC Ferries is one of the first pieces of business for a NDP government, if they get the chance. She wants to see a more fiscally-lean system (listing several head-office-related costs), and said all options are on the table, including service efficiencies, but not to harm coastal communities.

Each meeting lasted an hour, but with the NDP hour broken up by a call to vote in the Legislature, we couldn’t go into as much detail on the provincial long-term vision for interconnected and coordinated transportation. I hope islanders will press for this in their meetings and All-Candidate debates in the May election.

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