Call to consider fare-hike impact on ferry users overdue

By Jack Knox, Times Colonist

Forget for a moment whether David Hahn makes a million bucks or gets paid in day-old Triple-O burgers.

Regardless of whether he and other B.C. Ferries brass are overpaid, their collective compensation packages barely dent the corporation’s $750-million annual operating budget.

No, the most intriguing part in the provincial comptroller general’s report this week was the bit that says the impact on ferry users should be considered when fares are set.

Which is what Islanders groaning under the weight of a series of hefty fare increases have been arguing for six years. Too bad that’s like saying “I told you so” to the engineers who swore the Titanic was unsinkable. Nice to be right. Sucks to be drowning.

When B.C. Ferries was sort-of-privatized in 2003, a commissioner was appointed to look out for the public interest. But that watchdog was put on a short leash from the beginning, the government’s terms of reference forcing him to look at the corporation in isolation, with no regard to the effect of fares on the people and communities B.C. Ferries serves — kind of like running a hospital without thinking of the health of the patients.

As the government pushed the ferries to a user-pay model, fares rapidly outstripped the rate of inflation. Ferry-dependent communities argued the damage to local economies easily outweighed the benefit to the ferry corporation’s bottom line.

That’s nuts, says comptroller general Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland’s report. “The focus on the sustainability of the ferry operator … needs to be balanced with the interests of users of the ferry system, local communities and taxpayers.”

That’s exactly what local ferry advisory committees have been saying for years.

Particularly hard hit have been the towns at the end of 22 minor routes serving the Gulf Islands and Sunshine Coast. “Some of the fares have gone up over 100 per cent,” says Tony Law, chairman of Hornby Island’s ferry advisory committee. As a result, Hornby has seen day-trippers and short-stay tourists disappear. Denman Island commuters can no longer afford to work in the Comox Valley. Rising fares soured a chef who had been considering opening a badly needed high-end restaurant in tourist-hungry Alert Bay.

For Saturna Island’s Brian Hollingshead, reality hit home at last November’s craft fair, where attendance and sales were down by half. “The missing half were the sons and daughters of adult residents.” The kids who used to come home for the weekend stay in Victoria and Vancouver now. “Our adult children and grandchildren, we don’t see them anymore.”

Overall, B.C. Ferries traffic was down about five per cent in the year ending March 31. Fares weren’t the only factor, of course. The corporation blamed the economy, high fuel prices early in the year and severe winter weather last December. But whatever the cause, the ferries have become a choke point for Vancouver Island’s economy.

Why, it must be asked, are the Liberals so hell bent on pushing B.C. Ferries to a user-pay model, squeezing out ridership in the process, while happily subsidizing other means of public transport? B.C. Ferries’ major routes between the Island and mainland are now self-sufficient, while users cover about half the costs on the minor routes.

By contrast, Victoria transit riders pay 38 per cent of what it actually costs to bus them around the capital. For the Lower Mainland’s TransLink — which covers bus, SkyTrain and the West Coast Express commuter train — the average figure is 55 per cent.

Of course, ferry fares also cover capital expenses, the province dumping the entire cost of replacement vessels on the users. Meanwhile, in the Lower Mainland, the province shovels $2 billion into the Canada Line, $3 billion into the Gateway project, $600 million to fix up the Sea-to-Sky Highway…. A little consistency in philosophy would be nice.

Law and the other heads of the local ferry advisory committees have asked for a meeting with new Transportation Minister Shirley Bond, hoping that the combination of lobbying by worried civic politicians and the independent comptroller-general’s report will convince her to be open-minded on the issue.

After sailing this course for almost seven years, the Liberals should at least be willing to consider whether it’s really carrying us where we need to go, or simply heading for the rocks.

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