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Advisers blame ferry woes on fares

Jun 19 2012

B.C. Ferries is not listening to the people appointed to offer the corporation advice on fares and traffic, says the chairman of the southern Gulf Islands advisory committee.

Last week, B.C. Ferries announced it was posting a $16.5-million loss for the year ending March 31, due in part to a 21-year low in passenger loads. The corporation said it expects the numbers to improve in 2014.

But the chairs of more than a dozen advisory committees for B.C. Ferries routes issued a joint news release Monday calling the corporation's prediction of an early turnaround "highly optimistic."

The committee chairs said they don't expect B.C. Ferries to run without a deficit in the foreseeable future. "They figure the biggest factors to be the cost of gasoline at the pump, which we flatly disagree with, and the overall economy," said Brian Hollingshead, a part-time resident of Saturna Island who chairs the southern Gulf Islands advisory committee.

"Our position is that fares are the major driver of what's happening with traffic."

The current fare for a car and driver travelling between Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland is $65.10, while passengers pay $14.85.

A special "Coast Saver" deal is available until June 25 for those travelling from Friday to Monday, reducing fares on major routes for a car and driver to $39.95 and $9.95 for passengers.

Hollingshead said many people have told advisory committee members that they won't travel on B.C. Ferries because it's too expensive. Tourists also balk at the cost of riding the ferry, he said.

"Say you're on a cruise to Alaska [from Vancouver] and you've got three days to kill before it or after it, what are you going to do?

"You figure out that if you have a car it's going to cost you another $160 to go to Victoria on top of what attractions you're going to see — it's a formidable barrier."

People on the Lower Mainland can't afford to ride the ferries, he said.

"They look at what else they can do with their money and what else they can do for their entertainment and they just stopped going to the Island," he said.

While Coast Saver fares provide some relief on weekends, Hollingshead said people simply switch their travel plans from full-fare days to discounted days. "An increase of two, three or four per cent would be a good return on it," he said.

B.C. Ferries spokeswoman Deborah Marshall said Monday that it's too early to measure the success of the Coast Saver program this year.

Last year, the program was in place while the Canucks were in the playoffs and there was a spike in foot-passenger traffic, she said.

Meanwhile, Hollings-head said rising fares on southern Gulf Island routes are prompting young people to move away. "The ferry fare is the straw that breaks the camel's back," he said.

People used to live on the Gulf Islands because it was affordable but that's not true anymore, he added. B.C. Ferries' minor Gulf Islands routes are subsidized by the government, which Hollingshead says is no different from B.C. Transit, which offers public transportation through much of the province.

"With B.C. Transit, it's called government's share of the cost. When it's B.C. Ferries, it's called a subsidy, like it's a welfare client or something."


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