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B.C. Ferries riders will be asked for ideas of most pain-free cuts to aid money-losing service

Oct 30 2012
Ferry traffic at Swartz Bay. 

Ferry traffic at Swartz Bay.

Photograph by: Lyle Stafford , timescolonist.com

A government plan to consult with coastal communities about cuts to ferry service is flawed and incomplete, community leaders say.

Transportation Minister Mary Polak launched a 38-meeting tour Monday that will visit 30 communities over five weeks.

The goal, said Polak, is to identify which underused ferry routes to eliminate to save $26 million, as well as map a "vision" for the future of B.C. Ferries as the troubled corporation wrestles with shrinking ridership and ballooning costs.

But coastal communities say they are unimpressed.

"On the one hand, we're glad the province is actually consulting, but we're less than happy with the way they're going about it," said Tony Law, co-chairman of the Ferry Advisory Committee, a volunteer group that represents ferry-dependent communities.

Each ferry route should be looked at within its unique social and economic context for residents, he said.

The government also isn't providing enough financial detail to let people calculate the savings if a route is cut, said Law.

Polak's ministry released detailed figures about B.C.

Ferries usage Monday. The statistics outline the steep financial losses and rider-ship problems facing the quasi-private ferry corporation.

"We have put some ideas on the table and are looking for innovative ideas from British Columbians," Polak told reporters at the legislature. "However, some tough decisions have to be made to meet the current challenges."

B.C. Ferries will run a $564-million shortfall in the next 10 years, the government said. Fuel and labour costs are rising, and ships and terminals need to be replaced over the next decade at an estimated cost of $2 billion.

The province increased its subsidy by almost $80 million over four years, but ticket prices will nonetheless rise more than 12 per cent during that time.

While the main routes linking Nanaimo and Victoria with Greater Vancouver make millions each year, almost all other B.C. Ferries sailings lose money - for example, as much as $29.86 million annually on the Duke Point-Tsawwassen run, before government subsidies. On its Port Hardy-Prince Rupert route, B.C. Ferries loses almost $2,365 per vehicle.

The figures are misleading, Law said, because some coastal routes were always intended to be subsidized by profits on larger routes.

The documents also show how steeply fares have increased, in some cases more than 156 per cent in the last 20 years.

But Polak brushed aside suggestions that lower ticket prices might result in increased ridership, saying B.C.'s Interior ferry system, which is free, has suffered a similar decline.

The government consultation will ask residents if they support cable ferries, passenger-only service, bridges, property-tax increases or fuel-tax hikes to support ferry service.

Islands Trust chairwoman Sheila Malcolmson said some of the consultation questions on alternative fuel sources, standardized docks and route swapping, are impossible for ordinary people to answer.

"It feels like something you'd need to be a transportation engineer in order to answer," she said.

The government has also failed to provide data on walk-on passengers, the impact of feeder traffic from small ferries onto large routes and how many passengers travel in vehicles, she said.

The meeting schedule and a form to submit comments can be found at coastalferriesengagement.ca

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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