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Special Report on B.C. Ferries - Part 2: Gulf Islanders pay a price

Harold Swierenga, chair of Salt Spring Island’s ferry advisory committee, at the Fulford Harbour terminal on Salt Spring. Swierenga believes there may be holes in the province’s consultation with residents ahead of a planned $21 million cut to minor route sailings over the next three years. - Gail Sjuberg/Gulf Islands Driftwood
Harold Swierenga, chair of Salt Spring Island’s ferry advisory committee, at the Fulford Harbour terminal on Salt Spring. Swierenga believes there may be holes in the province’s consultation with residents ahead of a planned $21 million cut to minor route sailings over the next three years.
— image credit: Gail Sjuberg/Gulf Islands Driftwood

When Mavis Miller and her husband retired to their Mayne Island cabin from Richmond six years ago, they thought the easy ferry ride would make family visits a regular part of their routine.

But the last decade of cost increases have put a stop to that plan.

“To get to the Mainland, we pay more than people going from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay,” she said.

While the Millers often take advantage of free senior travel leaving the island on weekdays, their children and grandchildren don’t have the same luxury when visiting.

“Tourism is also down. We’ve had several businesses on the island close,” she said.

Miller’s story isn’t unique. All across the Southern Gulf Islands, daily commuters, retired couples and local businesses who rely on affordable access to the outside world are feeling the pinch of an average 80-per-cent rise in fares in less than a decade.

“Cost-wise, you have to think twice and plan better,” Miller said.

The increase has been about 10 times the rate of inflation, said Tony Law, Hornby-Denman islands ferry advisory committee chair.

“In communities like ours, it affects every aspect of life,” he said.

“There’s a little bit of a misnomer that the Gulf Islands are populated by rich people, but they’re a minority. Most incomes are below the provincial average. So, it’s really affecting the working people and young people a lot.”

•        •        •

Many Gulf Islands residents believe the province should be putting up more than the roughly $150-million in subsidies it has been providing, said Harold Swierenga, ferry advisory committee chair for Salt Spring Island.

The province did announce an additional $79.5 million to be doled out over the next five years, but it isn’t enough to freeze fares at their current levels.

“There’s a lot of attitude on the coast that the ferries should be priced on what we call a ‘highway equivalent basis,’” he said.

The argument is that government subsidies should be on par with the cost of building a major highway of similar distance, as taxpayers contribute to the project regardless of usage.

“What really brought that to a head was when they rebuilt the Sea-to-Sky Highway to get skiers up to Whistler faster and yet it wasn’t tolled, and here we are paying more all the time,” Swierenga said.

“So, there’s a deep-seated feeling that the government has lost sight of what the ferry corporation was envisioned to do when it was set up in the 1960s.”

Blanket tolling of major infrastructure projects isn’t a new argument, but it’s unlikely to gain traction without widespread public support, said Transportation Minister Mary Polak.

“We do currently have an existing tolling policy in British Columbia that doesn’t have us tolled on routes where there isn’t a free alternative or there hasn’t been significant improvement or replacement,” she said.

Gary Coons, the NDP’s ferries critic, said his party would bring B.C. Ferries back under the umbrella of the highway system, but failed to offer tangible ways of paying for any increase in government subsidies.

“Before the Coastal Ferry Act was established in 2003, ferries were considered the same as building new roads or bridges for the continual maintenance that you need,” Coons said.

Transport Canada guidelines require B.C. Ferries to replace 11 vessels of its aging fleet within the next decade, a capital cost estimated at $2.5 billion, according to B.C. Ferry Commissioner Gord Macatee.

That looming expense has government scrambling to find more viable alternatives to the current model of single-ferry routes.

“In a lot of cases, we have vessels that are much larger than the route would require, in terms of their safety,” Polak said. “And in turn, they are, in some cases, much larger than we need for capacity.”

Coons argues the user-pay model isn’t the right approach.

“I think we’ve got to ... acknowledge that it’s a difficult part of our highway network.”

•         •         •

Between now and Dec. 21, consultancy group Kirk & Co. will be visiting 30 coastal communities and accepting online submissions to gather public input on $21 million in cuts needed on the minor routes, and begin dialogue on a long-term vision for B.C. Ferries.

Coons questioned the process but agreed a new vision is needed to create a viable ferry system.

“Going out right now will do nothing to address the major issue of affordability and ridership, which needs immediate attention,” Coons said.

“I think it’s going to be a tough sell in the communities.”

While Swierenga admitted Gulf Islanders recognize the need for change, he said there are still holes and questionable assumptions in the consultation process.

“No matter what you do, you’re going to get some flack, but ultimately, the decision should be made for the betterment of everybody, including the ferry corporation,” he said.

Many residents inaccurately believe ferry amenities, such as restaurants and gift shops, are a driving factor in rising fares, Swierenga said.

In reality, those services account for $100 million in revenue each year and make use of staff who are required to be on board.

Changes to the Coastal Ferry Act also allow B.C. Ferries to use revenue from the profitable major routes to cover losses on the smaller routes.

“If (services) make money, they’re positive as far as I’m concerned,” Swierenga said.

There is a risk in lowering fares to increase ridership, as residents would likely take a long time to return to more frequent trips off-island, he said.

“I think if the fares dropped by 25 per cent, my wife and I probably wouldn’t travel much more than we do now, because you’ve got a mindset now that you can accommodate less frequent trips,” he said.

Daily commuters like Karen Pederson don’t have the luxury of fewer trips. Pederson takes the Fulford Harbour-Swartz Bay ferry five days a week, and bikes to-and-from her surveying job in Sidney to avoid paying for vehicle fares.

She estimates she spends $3,000 each year on passenger fares to keep her family and home on Salt Spring.

“Luckily, I have a job that makes it worthwhile,” she said, adding she hopes to see a renewed focus on providing service for the Gulf Islands.

“Long-term, the service can’t be privatized, it just doesn’t work,” she said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, and part of that is due to a lack of information about what the ferry corporation is planning.”

Southern Gulf Islands population

2006     2011    % change

• Mayne Island          1,112    1,071      -3.7

• Galiano Island         1,258    1,138      -9.5

• Saturna Island          359      335        -6.7

• North and South      2,232    2,236       N/C

Pender islands

• Salt Spring Island    9,640    10,234    +6.2

TOTAL 14,601    15,014     +3

dpalmer@vicnews.com

UP NEXT: B.C. Ferries’ major route users air their concerns

Past stories in series:

Part 1: A Sea of Change

Intro: B.C. Ferries charts a new course

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