Ferry route cuts known by summer
VICTORIA – Coastal ferry users are braced for reduced sailings on some under-used routes, and many are open to cable ferries, barges, passenger-only vessels or even bridges where practical to contain rising costs.
Transportation Minister Mary Polak released the government's consultation report Tuesday on ways to save $26 million on operations by 2016. That was the target set by BC Ferry Commissioner Gord Macatee after he was appointed last year.
About 4,000 people took part in the consultation, with more than half saying they agree with the need to reduce costs. When the government announced the service review last year, it added an extra $20 million to the subsidy for the service over four years, bringing the total taxpayer subsidy to about $180 million per year.
Polak said specific service cuts won't be made public until June 30 at the earliest, and the government may extend that deadline after reviewing the consultation results with BC Ferries. She denied that the timing was chosen to push the unpopular move past the May 14 election.
"If the idea was to stay away from discussion of potential cuts during an election period, I daresay we would not have embarked on the consultation," Polak said. "We were very up-front in putting out the utilization numbers so people can see where the challenges were and where there will likely be cuts."
Last year BC Ferries cut sailings on the Duke Point-Nanaimo run, which was losing an average of $50 per vehicle carried. BC Ferries CEO Mike Corrigan said the corporation expected to cut at least 100 sailings on its major Vancouver Island routes, mostly low-ridership runs late in the evenings.
NDP transportation critic Maurine Karagianis wouldn't commit to increasing the taxpayer subsidy or any specific action, such as returning BC Ferries to Crown corporation status.
"If we treat it like transportation infrastructure, the same as bridges, rail, roads, that's a slightly different approach to the ferry system," Karagianis said. "At the end of the day, we need to see some cost savings."
As expected, raising property taxes or fuel taxes in coastal communities to help pay for ferry service was an unpopular choice, endorsed by only 20 per cent of participants. Most called for ferries to be funded by all B.C. taxpayers or by the users themselves.
A call for "innovative ideas" also produced few surprises. The top suggestion in consultation meetings and written feedback was to reduce fares to increase ridership, an experiment that BC Ferries has tried several times on major routes with no success.
BC Ferries has found that ferry use is declining on B.C.'s free inland ferries and other jurisdictions such as Washington state, as people choose to travel less because of the cost of fuel and other factors.