It will be months before North Island ferry passengers know whether they face cuts in the number of sailings available to them.
An increase in fares, however, is a sure thing.
Two days after Transportation Minister Mary Polak released the government’s report of last fall’s ferries consultation with coastal communities, BC Ferries announced a 4.1 per cent fare hike on all routes, to take effect April 1.
“I find it’s very unfortunate timing, coming the day after (the government) released the consultation report,” North Vancouver Island MLA Claire Trevena said. “The consultation shows clearly that all our coastal communities say these fare increases are unsustainable.”
The hits may well keep coming to users of the Tri-Island ferry serving Alert Bay, Sointula and Port McNeill, and to those who utilize the Northern route out of Port Hardy. The government last year added $20 million to its subsidy and now funds BC Ferries to the tune of $180 million per year. But that’s not enough, Polak said.
BC Ferries is faced with a mandated $26 million in savings by 2016, and under-utilized routes could be casualties.
“We are looking to every corner of BC Ferries’ operations to find the savings,” she said last week during a conference call with reporters. “We recognize that without addressing some changes to routes, and some of those will be reduction in service, we will not ever achieve the size of reduction we need to see.”
Asked when coastal communities and riders would know where the cuts are coming, Polak said no sooner than June 30 — and it might be longer depending the result of follow-up consultations with coastal communities.
“We will now be returning to communities to discuss how we will implement and make determinations on service changes using the results of this consultation as part of the lens through which we view these numbers,” Polak said.
Representatives of the government and BC Ferries stopped in Alert Bay, Sointula and Port Hardy last fall as part of their initial consultation, ostensibly to gather input on how best to achieve the $26 million in savings. Local users and supporters of the ferry system at that time testified the die seemed to be cast for service cuts, and called instead for the coastal ferry system to be budgeted as part of the provincial highway system and for BC Ferries to be reinstated as a Crown corporation.
“Respondents are all saying this is part of the provincial highway system,” said Trevena. “What the government doesn’t accept is that we live in a coastal system. Until the government acknowledges this is our highway, we’re going to keep seeing service cuts and fare increases.”
The consultation has played out locally against a backdrop of substantial terminal upgrades, which are currently under way in Alert Bay and will soon commence in Sointula and Port McNeill. Further, the Tri-Island Ferry Commission has been lobbying BC Ferries not for reduced service, but for an extra early morning run from Sointula to Port McNeill to facilitate work schedules and medical appointment travel.