Northern ferry route axed

The Tri-Island ferry route spared cuts, but the budget axe fell heavily on BC Ferries’ northern routes out of Port Hardy Monday.

PORT HARDY—The Tri-Island ferry route connecting Alert Bay, Port McNeill and Sointula was spared any cuts, but the budget axe fell heavily on BC Ferries’ northern routes out of Port Hardy Monday.

In a press conference held Monday in Victoria, Transportation Minister Todd Stone introduced the first round of cuts designed to claw $18.9 million in savings from the BC Ferries budget by 2016.

Route 40, which provides a direct link from Bella Coola to Port Hardy in the peak summer months, has been cut altogether. Route 10, which sails between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert with stops each way in Bella Bella, will see a one-third reduction in sailings in the off-season and its busier, peak, season shortened by seven weeks.

Businesses on North Vancouver Island and in tourism-dependent Bella Coola expect a dramatic negative impact from what Stone described as a “service adjustment.”

“I’m actually flabbergasted by the extent of the cuts,” Port Hardy Mayor Bev Parnham said. “These are huge cuts that are going to have a massive impact on our economy.”

Port Hardy and other North Island residents have a chance to provide feedback to the Ministry and to BC Ferries officials in person Wednesday when they arrive as part of a monthlong series of community consultations.

This week’s consultation will take place at the Civic Centre, with an open house from 5-6:30 p.m. followed by public comment period from 6:30-8 p.m.

In addition to the northern route cuts, BC Ferries officials on Monday announced the cut of additional under-utilized sailings on “minor” routes serving the smaller islands between Vancouver Island and the Mainland, a cut in the discount that provides free trips for seniors 65-over from Monday through Thursday, and the introduction of a pilot gaming program that will see slot machines installed on the major routes connecting Victoria and Nanaimo to the Lower Mainland.

“Today, we’re here to chart a new course for our coastal ferry service,” Stone said Monday to reporters in Victoria and linked to the press conference via telephone. “This course will be shaped by the guiding principals of affordability, efficiency and sustainability, while protecting basic service to our coastal communities.”

But the overriding mandate was for cost savings, and few regions were left untouched by the service reductions.

A second round of service changes, designed to pry the additional $4.9 million in savings from the major routes out of Vancouver and Tsawassen, is expected to be announced nest year.

“While Minister Stone called the cuts a tough decision, it seems the government has a far easier time being tough on seniors, and on people living in ferry-dependent communities like Port Hardy and Powell River, than on corporate executives,” said Claire Trevena, the NDP opposition critic for transportation.

The changes, which are expected to trim $14 million of the target $18.9 million in cost reductions, take effect April 1, 2014. For Route 40, which serves Bella Coola from Port Hardy between May and September, that means effectively an immediate cut.

“The largest percentage of our ferry users were tourists,” said Stephen Waugh of Bella Coola, former North Coast Ferry Advisory Commission chair. “But there’s no other industry here. All we have is a small, community forest operation that, at its peak, might employ 20 people. This is a tourism area and that’s our only opportunity to grow the economy.

“This is a big, big hit.”

Waugh plans to attend when the ferry consultation tour lands in Bella Coola Friday at 5 p.m., at Lobelco Hall.

Bella Coola will now be served by the smaller ferry Nimpkish, which connects Bella Coola, Shearwater and Ocean Falls with Bella Bella in the off-season. Now summer tourists will need to sail Route 10 from Port Hardy to Bella Bella, the disembark and wait for the Nimpkish to board for the “milk run” back through the smaller communities.

“The Nimpkish holds only 20 cars, depending on the configuration,” said Waugh. “The milk run was already the least-popular way to get to Bella Coola, and now they’ve made it even worse. It’s going to kill so much traffic.”

In Port Hardy, Parnham said she has already heard from local tourism operators who have had to cancel or postpone bookings as a result of the cuts. One wilderness adventure operator said he took an immediate $24,000 hit.

Parnham also wryly noted Monday’s announcement came a week after BC Ferries restructured its executive compensation package to eliminate lucrative performance bonuses, but in a fashion that built most of that income into a new, higher base pay rate.

“(The cuts) are all coming at the expense of people along the coast,” said Parnham, who reiterated an ongoing call to make coastal ferries part of the provincial highway system. “They forget we put a lot of money into provincial coffers, and this is what we get in return.

“It’s so short-sighted. I’m appalled.”