VICTORIA – Hundreds of people gathered on the lawn of the B.C. legislature Tuesday to call for the provincial government to cancel its cuts to lower-usage ferry runs set to take effect in April.
Among the speakers at the rally were Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin and Sheila Malcolmson, chair of the Islands Trust, the local government for the Gulf Islands.
Malcolmson told a cheering crowd that the taxpayer subsidy to BC Ferries has been overemphasized. She said since the B.C. Liberal government took office in 2001, ferry users have paid $5 billion in fares, while taxpayers have subsidized the operation by $1 billion.
Transportation Minister Todd Stone said he welcomes protesters exercising their freedom of speech, but the intention to cut $18.9 million from low-usage routes was made clear before the 2013 election. The provincial subsidy to coastal ferries has increased by almost $90 million over three years, and cost reductions are needed to keep fares from rising further, he said.
“There are too many sailings on the BC Ferries system with utilization rates in the low teens and single digits, and I think British Columbians support us in believing that is not sustainable,” Stone said. “There are more staff than cars and passengers on many of these sailings.”
Opposition critics resumed their focus on the impact of ferry cuts in the legislature Tuesday. NDP leader Adrian Dix called on the government to do an economic impact study on tourism and other business in coastal communities.
Dix quoted Premier Christy Clark from her radio talk show in 2008, where she argued that fare hikes were reaching the point where they would produce net revenue loss.
North Island MLA Claire Trevena, the NDP critic on ferries, reminded Stone that replacing the Queen of Chilliwack with the much smaller, open-decked MV Nimpkish on the summer run from Bella Bella to Bella Coola has been greeted with dismay by tourism operators.
Stone said the existing service to Bella Coola carries about 500 vehicles during a 13-week season, with a public subsidy that works out to $2,500 per vehicle carried.
Trevena suggested that given the lack of facilities on the Nimpkish for a sailing of more than nine hours, an ad campaign for the Discovery Coast ferry route might include the slogan, “coming soon, drinkable water.”