Like a dock line mooring a boat, each B.C. ferry route ties islands large and small to mainland British Columbia. A recent statement by David Hahn, CEO of B.C. ferries threaten to sever those important links for many island dwellers, particularly those on the smaller routes and northern routes, who can barely afford fares at current levels, say opponents.
MLA Claire Trevena says the notion of doubling fares is, “terrifying. It really is terrifying. It’s going to hurt all our communities in the North Island. It’s going to have a huge impact on tourism with the ferry that runs from Port Hardy up the coast. It’s going to have an impact on the people of Sointula, Alert Bay and Port McNeill. And it’s going to have and impact on everyone because so much of our produce comes from the Lower Mainland by ferry. I think it is extremely short-sighted to say the least and it’s going to make it very hard for people to continue to make life work on the islands.”
The main impact on fares on North Island routes is the government’s contribution, say the Ferry Advisory Committee Chairs (FACC).
“Only the provincial government can substantially reduce projected fares,” said the FACC, in an email to the Gazette. Provincial support for the ferry system has been pegged at $92 million for the past eight years, they say.
“Like bridges, our coastal ferry service is an essential asset to all British Columbians to function in their day to day lives,” said Steven Waugh, chair of the North and Mid-coast FAC, in an email response to the Gazette.
“The impact of increased ferry fares to North Island communities will undoubtedly be negative. Whether tourist related, provision driven or commuter traffic, ferry use in all coastal communities is a significant economic engine in the local economies,” said Waugh.
The FACC point to an incongruous regulation governing B.C. Ferries Corporation. Namely, the major routes and non-major route groups are treated as separate entities. The major routes make a profit and are not subsidized. Non-major routes need subsidies to exist. Legislation prohibits profits from the major routes being used to subsidize non-major routes.
Hahn, faced with a projected $20 million loss next year, appearing on a Shaw TV program suggested that in the absence of increased government subsidies ferry fares on northern routes could be increased by 25 per cent per year for four years beginning in 2012 to make up the shortfall.
Consumers could see the current $560 one-way regular fare for a car plus driver travelling from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert more than double to $1,367. The $31.85 regular return fare for the same unit on the Port McNeill – Alert Bay – Sointula route would balloon to $77.76. That route has already seen a 68 per cent increase since 2003.
Christy Clark, during the run up to being elected leader of the B.C. Liberal Party and premier said in a story reported in the Gulf Islands Driftwood that she would require Hahn to cover the fare increases by finding savings within the ferry corporation.
The FACC said, “Coastal communities are like any rural B.C. community. Their residents are diverse and the vast majority of them are not affluent. Community viability depends on retaining this diversity.” The FACC are calling on the provincial government to support the ferry system to a level that keeps fare increases in line with inflation.
Deborah Marshall, media representative for B.C. Ferries, said the fare increases currently being discussed will be introduced throughout the four year span from 2012 to 2016. The government will decide subsidies and service levels with fare increases making up any shortfall by June 30 and ask for the approval of the B.C. Ferry Commission by Sept. 30.