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Jack Knox: Ferry cuts draining life out of Saturna

Dec 05 2012

Afew years ago, Saturna Island's summer season lasted from Victoria Day to Labour Day, city dwellers flocking over on the ferries.

Today, it's June and July at best, not enough to carry local businesses through the lean winter months. So the pub only opens Thursday through Sunday right now. Can't buy gas Monday through Wednesday. One of the two general stores pretty much shuts down over the winter, and the café closes early.

The $64,000 question - actually, the $26-million question - is whether soaring ferry fares crippled the economy or whether Sat-urna was just another casualty of the global meltdown.

That question echoes again and again as B.C. Ferries and Transportation Ministry staff travel the coast seeking the public's advice on how to cut $26-million worth of ferry service over the next four years. Close to 80 of the island's 350 Gore-Texed and gumbooted residents packed the Saturna hall Tuesday, the latest stop on a 40-meeting, 30-community tour whose pace would stagger even Mick Jagger.

The road show, which began in Haida Gwaii on Nov. 6 and concludes on Denman and Hornby islands Saturday, continues with an open house at Victoria's Hotel Grand Pacific from 6 to 9 p.m. today.

The B.C. government says there's no choice but to cut ferry service. Most coastal routes are running at under 50 per cent capacity. (Indeed, there were just 15 vehicles aboard the 70-car Mayne Queen as it sailed from Swartz Bay to Saturna on Tuesday afternoon, a spectacular double rainbow arching from Pender to Saltspring.)

Even with fare increases of about four per cent for each of the next four years, the corporation is bleeding red - a $16-million shortfall this year. B.C. Ferries labour costs jumped 24 per cent between 2004 and 2012, largely because of staffing levels mandated by federal safety rules.

Fuel costs jumped 140 per cent in the same period, even though consumption dropped. Aging vessels need replacing.

But Saturna has a different view. If ridership is down, it's because fares, up 87 per cent on their route since the provincial government pushed B.C. Ferries toward a user-pay model in 2003, have passed the tipping point - a phrase speakers used again and again. They say the drop in ridership predated the global meltdown, that their own economic downturn was caused by the Liberals, not Lehmann Brothers.

"If you believe that the high fares have been the major reason for traffic decline, put up your hands," local ferry advisory committee rep Brian Hollingshead told the crowd. Eighty arms shot in the air. "The only thing that will bring traffic back is a significant fare rollback."

But the Transportation Ministry didn't set up this meeting to talk about lowering fares. It called it to talk about cutting $26-million worth of service, mostly from the minor and northern routes.

This is vital stuff in coastal communities like Saturna, where almost one-quarter of the entire population turned out Tuesday.

(Contrast that with the open house in Vancouver, attended by roughly a dozen people.) Speakers were decidedly civil (at the end of the meeting, everyone stacked the chairs, unbidden) but passionate.

Cutting service has consequences. Saturna's Athena George used to go to yoga teacher-training in Victoria on Saturdays.

When B.C. Ferries cancelled the early ferry, it became an overnight trip, so she quit going. Parents who used to take their kids to Saanich Commonwealth Place say the same thing.

(Traditionally, Saturna's economy has been based on sucking money out of Vancouver and spending it in Sidney.) A common theme during the coastal road-show: grandparents worried about being cut off from their grandchildren.

Awkward scheduling limits life. Make it awkward enough, life will disappear, up and down the coast.

"You kill these communities, you kill your revenue," one speaker told the visitors. "We are your goose. Please don't strangle us."

jknox@timescolonist.com

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