Ferry fares will rise an average of four per cent per year for the next three years despite a new requirement that BC Ferries Commissioner Gordon Macatee take the well-being of users into consideration when setting price caps.
In a Oct. 1 press release, Macatee said fare increases will be implemented with caps of 4.1 per cent on April 1, 2013, 4 per cent on April 1, 2014, and 3.9 per cent on April 1, 2015.
The four per cent increase to the price caps was also despite planned cuts totalling $30 million to service levels and another $24.2 million in savings found from other “efficiencies”, Macatee said.
In response to the hikes, Trust Council Chair Sheila Malcolmson said at Thursday’s Local Trust Committee meeting at the WI Hall, that she and the chairs of the regional districts from ferry-dependent communities agreed, at last week’s Union of BC Municipalities, to lobby the Minister of Transportation and the Premier to hold off on fare increases until public consultation on service levels and a long term vision of the ferry service has occurred.
John Hodgkins, Chair of the Gabriola Ferry Advisory Committee (FAC) also responded to Macatee’s announcement in a Tuesday press release. Hodgkins said he was disappointed fares will rise, given that the commissioner admitted in a January report that fares had reached “a tipping point of affordability”.
“With consumer prices across BC rising at little more than one per cent in the past year”, Hodgins said, “the imposition of fare increases averaging four per cent a year for the next three years is a bitter pill for ferry users, especially those who depend on ferry services for their journey to work”. He said many islanders are already having trouble managing the fares, and the new increases will “just compound the misery for ferry-dependent communities – and inevitably lead to further decline in ferry ridership. That’s bad news for the future of our ferry services and bad news for our local economy”.
Hodgkins also noted that the increase “would have been even higher if the Province hadn’t committed to making $30 million in savings from service adjustments over the next three years”.
Hodgkins explained: “Of the $30 million net savings required from service adjustments, only $4 million has so far been identified”. He said the $4 million will come “from reductions on the three major routes, but primarily from the cuts already announced to winter Saturday services on Route 30 between Duke Point and Tsawwassen”. He said the service cuts will begin October 13.
“The remainder ($26 million) is to be identified through the public engagement process that the Province is due to start this fall”, Hodgins said. “Not all of the $26 million will necessarily have to come from the northern and minor routes; it could still include some further cuts to the major routes, though nothing has so far been announced”.
The Ferry Advisory Committee Chairs (FACC) – a body made up of representatives from the FACs on the Salish Sea Islands – said, in a Tuesday press release, that the increases “raise questions about the effectiveness of government response to the ferry affordability gap”.
Noting that the fares are double the inflation rate, they called on government to “face the causes of the affordability crisis by bearing “a greater share of the escalating costs that are causing escalating fares (including): fuel prices; revenue shortfalls from falling traffic; and overdue and urgent need to replace very old ships and docks”.
The FACC also acknowledged that the government will contribute $33 million in new money towards BC Ferries in the next three years. “The new money aims to help BC Ferries maintain a good bond rating and reduce upward pressure on fares”, they said. “Without it, fare hikes would have been a few percentage points higher”.
The FACC said the impact of service cuts and fare increases on future ferry traffic “is harder to assess”. If not done properly they said, the cuts and increases could lead to a “downward spiral in traffic and upward spiral in fares”.
Calling both spirals “the kiss of death”, Brian Hollingshead of Southern Gulf Islands FAC said: “More than anything, we need a public policy approach that aims to sustain our communities, stem the damage from high fares, and grow our potential”.
Malcolmson said in presenting Trust Council’s position to Minister of Transportation Mary Polak, she emphasised that the settlement patterns of coastal communities “are based on ferry service, and the expectation that that’s going to continue. It’s not the way (it’s sometimes portrayed) in the Vancouver media; that people have decided to, in a privileged way, move out to coastal communities and now they are demanding ferry service”.
Although Polak made no promises, Malcolmson said she was encouraged that the transport minister who, Malcolmson later learned, lived in the Haida Gwaii for three years, “echoed that back exactly in her comments”. She said the Trust, coastal regional districts, and the FACC have been invited to meet with the Province “so maybe we had an impact after all”.
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