Opinion

Rough seas ahead for BC Ferries

Passengers watch as BC Ferries vessel leaves Tsawwassen: gloomy weather and high gas prices meant few extra passengers, even after Coast Saver discounts in effect in May and June. - Tom Fletcher/Black Press
Passengers watch as BC Ferries vessel leaves Tsawwassen: gloomy weather and high gas prices meant few extra passengers, even after Coast Saver discounts in effect in May and June.
— image credit: Tom Fletcher/Black Press

VICTORIA – BC Ferries has begun its summer schedule, ramping up sailings for the vacation season that is crucial to the fleet’s bottom line.

It’s been rough sailing for BC Ferries so far this year. The corporation released its financial results in June, reporting a net loss of $16.5 million, compared to net earnings of $3.8 million the previous year. Last year’s earnings were boosted by the sale of the former corporate headquarters for $9.3 million, preventing a loss there as well.

In the fiscal year that ended March 31, vehicle traffic was down 3.5 per cent and walk-on passengers were down 2.8 per cent. As a result, BC Ferries is forecasting a “small loss” for this year as well.

The spring “Coast Saver” sale has just ended. That’s a 37-per-cent discount offered Fridays through Mondays, May 25 to June 25 on the major runs from the mainland to Victoria and Nanaimo. The discounts allowed a foot passenger to cross for $9.95 and a car and driver for $39.95.

I asked BC Ferries CEO Mike Corrigan last week how the sale went. He didn’t have final figures yet, but he allowed that the boost in traffic was “marginal.”

It’s the second year that the spring sale has been offered over weekends, when people are more likely to travel. But instead of generating additional trips, Corrigan said the main effect has been to shift traffic from midweek to weekends.

One of the primary reasons for this spring’s poor performance is the lousy weather that kept people at home. Gasoline at $1.40 a litre is another big one. Hotels and other tourism services tell the same story.

Here’s another problem: student traffic on the ferries was down by a third this spring, because teachers cancelled field trips as part of their lengthy work-to-rule campaign.

The simplistic political debate about ferry service starts and ends with rising fares, with occasional fits of temper over executive salaries, and ignores the other factors. Just cut the fares and increase the taxpayer subsidy, say the NDP and their local echo chambers.

Of course, taxpayers are already pitching in an extra $80 million this year, bringing the subsidy to the ferries close to $200 million. That’s how Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom sweetened the pot as he unveiled new powers for B.C. Ferry Commissioner Gord Macatee to set service levels as well as regulate fares.

Macatee’s task now is to travel the coast and endure the demands of island dwellers who want the rest of us to subsidize their splendid isolation. The proposition for them will boil down to this: You can pay more or you can have fewer sailings. And where the boat is a third full, you will have fewer sailings.

This consultation period is an opportunity to ask some hard questions. For instance, does Saltspring Island really need three ferry terminals? And why is there no passenger-only service?

Macatee’s term as commissioner started with a detailed review last year that pointed to some other ways to save serious money. But CEO Corrigan says there are no quick fixes.

FortisBC has offered an $11 million incentive for conversion of marine vessels to natural gas, which would give the fleet significant relief from spiraling fuel costs. But a ferry conversion would take six months or more, and another vessel would be needed in the meantime.

Another promising suggestion is overhauling the ferry reservation service, making reservations free and charging extra for those who just show up. Corrigan says a computer reservation overhaul is underway, but it will take three years.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com

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