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B.C. Ferries gasps for breath after cash infusion

May 11 2012

So, is this the part of Law and Order where the bad guy realizes that, whoops, he might have squeezed his victim's throat a little too tightly, so tries to bring her back with mouth to-mouth?

Having spent nine years with its knuckles whitening around B.C. Ferries' windpipe, the provincial government is easing its grip a bit, pumping another $80 million into the corporation. Sounds like a lot, but many wonder if the added cash will do anything more than keep the patient gasping for a bit.

"We're grateful for more money," says Saturna Island's Brian Hollingshead, who represents the southern Gulf Islands on the Ferry Advisory Committee Chairs, the wonderfully named group - say the acronym out loud and you'll know how they feel - that speaks for coastal communities that depend on the service.

That said, he notes that the biggest chunk of the new money, $25 million, is for last year and another $21.5 million is for this year.

That leaves an average of $11 million for each of the next three - just a fraction of the projected shortfall of $58 million a year. Even with the government expecting B.C. Ferries to find $45 million in savings and service cuts over four years, that still leaves a hefty gap, which means there's no way the corporation can hold fare increases - capped at 4.15 per cent this year - to the rate of inflation.

Which brings us to the catch-22, the idea that fare hikes have become counterproductive, pushing down ridership to the point they actually push down overall revenue, too. B.C. Ferries has maintained that socalled elasticity studies show the tipping point has not quite been reached.

Can't deny that ridership has declined, though. The only question is why, whether the drop is simply symptomatic of a weak economy or whether it's because the government has forced B.C. Ferries to price itself out of business.

The bigger question is whether fares have priced ferry-dependent communities out of business, mortally wounding the very people the corporation is supposed to serve.

There's no shortage of examples of the well running dry in the Gulf Islands. On Hollingshead's Saturna, for example, the pub scaled back its hours this winter, a much-loved café shut its doors and a legendary bakery relocated to Sidney. Every time somebody turns out the lights, it gives tourists one less reason to visit.

But can that be blamed on fare hikes? "You can't really connect the dots with a straight line," Hollingshead says.

Still, he notes that when he and his wife drove to a memorial service in Vancouver last week, the Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen round trip cost $164. "It's a noticeable amount now." Enough to scuttle travel plans.

It's a pickle. The new transportation minister, Blair Lekstrom, comes across as more practical and less ideologically driven than some of his predecessors, as proven by the $80 million announced this week. Still, no one expects the Liberals to reverse course and suddenly start firing the ferries' boilers with taxpayers dollars.

And if the New Democrats get elected a year from now? They get preachy about ferry funding, but note that ridership peaked on their watch in 1996, declining after the NDP implemented the first in a series of steep fare increases that year.

The Liberals pushed fares even higher with their 2003 decision to make the corporation sort of independent - a machiavellian move to keep control, but not political accountability.

No coincidence that this was done just as the rusting fleet, neglected by the Socreds and driven onto the rocks by the NDP's fast ferry fiasco, was in screaming need of renewal. And yes, it's still galling that the Liberals are happy to pump billions into Lower Mainland transportation projects, but won't pay a nickel of B.C. Ferries' capital costs.

What has been the result? In 1995, the TsawwassenSwartz Bay car-and-driver fare was $26.75. If fares had merely risen with the consumer price index, they would be $37.33 today. Instead, we now pay $64.10.

That's a lot of squeezing. Makes it hard to breathe.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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