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General News · 16th July 2008
John Sprungman
A hefty fuel surcharge is likely to be added to fares on BC Ferries' minor routes, including Quadra and Cortes, on August 1st, the day after BC Ferries will stop selling prepaid paper ticket books on most of its routes.

Three weeks ago, BCF President & CEO David Hahn announced he would ask Ferry Commissioner Martin Crilly to approve fuel surcharges in the 8-9% range for the major routes and 15-20% for the minors. In an email last Friday, Crilly confirmed he had received a written request for a surcharge to be implemented August 1, and “we are beginning to study it.”

Previous fuel surcharges were the same amount per vehicle and a lesser amount per passenger regardless of whether the customer paid with cash or a prepaid ticket. Presumably, Experience Card rates will go up by the same amount cash fares increase.

However, the percentage Crilly allows will be calculated on average fare prices in the minor route group, consisting of 18 ferry routes, so it is hard to say what the dollar figure for Cortes or Quadra will be until Crilly issues his ruling. Check www.bcferrycommission.com for his decision which will probably be made before the next issue of the D.I.

In previous surcharge applications, the process has included a referral to the Ministry of Transportation to determine whether the Provincial Government would fund any part of the cost overrun for fuel. Three times in the last five years, Minister Kevin Falcon has refused to do so-passing the full cost to ferry users.

Although there has been no official announcement, the Ferry Advisory Committee Chairs (FACC) have heard that the government may protect the northern route group (Port Hardy to Prince Rupert, Rupert to the Queen Charlotte Islands, and the summer-only Discovery Coast service between Port Hardy and central coast communities) from further fuel surcharges.

The reasoning is that current fares are all the traffic can bear. It costs $452.60 for a one-way trip for two adults in an undersize vehicle between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert. Add $220 for an oversize vehicle, and you can see why further increases are likely to hurt tourist traffic the government wants to encourage.

It's a 15-hour trip between Rupert and Hardy on the MV Northern Adventure, the refurbished MV Sonia from Spain which the government financed to replace the sunken Queen of the North. The Adventure actually uses more fuel than the Queen of the North did.

Crilly's ruling should clarify whether the government is, in fact, subsidizing further fuel costs for this vessel and the 42-year-old Queen of Prince Rupert which serves the Queen Charlottes.

Tourism and economic development (along with the 2010 Olympics) seem to be the main interests of the Liberal government when it comes to putting provincial taxpayer dollars into transportation systems.

Announcing a $350,000 provincial contribution for work on the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry dock in Prince Rupert , Falcon is quoted in the Vancouver Sun as saying, “It's really an extension of the B.C. highway system into the heart of Alaska.” Curiously, any suggestion by minor route ferry users that our ferries are “an extension of B.C. highways” falls on deaf ears.

In the only meeting the FACC has had with Falcon, he contended that fuel price increases “are just something we all have to pay” but now that BCF's higher fuel costs include the Liberals' carbon tax of 2.8 cents per litre for diesel, it could be argued that subsidizing part of the surcharge is consistent with the “revenue neutral” policy of returning those taxes to residents of B.C. The carbon tax will be 8.2 cents per litre by 2012.

A Bridge Doesn't Close The Gap
The rising cost of ferry travel has spawned a number of imaginative ideas including CEO David Hahn's offer to pay for a survey of Gabriola Islanders to determine if they would prefer a toll bridge to paying ferry fares.

That suggestion produced an interesting observation in an Vancouver Sun editorial:

“Hahn says it's conceivable a toll bridge would be cheaper, but (Gabriola FAC Chair Andre) Lemieux says a bridge is considered a threat to the way of life that people moved to Gabriola to find.

“It's undeniably true that islands maintain their character by being somewhat difficult to get to,” the Sun said. Noting that the Gabriola ferry costs $2 million a year more to run than users pay in fares, the editorial asks, “But if a bridge is a viable option, why should taxpayers across the rest of the province pay a premium to subsidize ferries so islanders can maintain their cloistered lifestyle?

“On the other hand, the possibility of a bridge also highlights the limits to the rationality of the provincial government's tolling policy, which is that tolls will only be charged on a new bridge or highway when there is an optional, toll-free route available.

“The bridge (to Gabriola) would be the only route and therefore should be toll-free, even though now, when the only route is by ferry, islanders are expected to pay.”

There is a similarly circular conundrum confronting ferry users and BCF when contemplating the consequences of changing our travel habits in response to higher fares.

BCF's toll structure is based on vehicle and passenger rates, assuming about two passengers per vehicle on most routes. A number of conservation-minded people have suggested that BCF should have lower passenger and higher vehicle fares, that small cars like the Smart car should pay half price, and that scooters and motorcycles should be free.

The problem, BCF's Chief Financial Officer Rob Clarke is quick to point out, is that shifting the fare load to full size and oversize vehicles will only produce more foot passengers, car pooling and use of smaller modes of transport. Maintaining the same overall revenue would require even higher vehicle fares, further discouraging their use. Ultimately, we could see a reduction in the number of sailings and, perhaps, the demise of car ferries on some routes.

Experiencing the Convenience?
BCF announced Monday that it will discontinue the sale of prepaid paper tickets July 31 on all but four of 18 routes which had them because of the “popularity, convenience and enhanced benefits” of the Experience Card.

That means no more paper tickets for the Quadra ferry which means everyone will soon have to go through the Campbell River ticket booth to get a boarding pass. Terminal staff has been accommodating foot passengers by accepting paper tickets at the ramp.

Paper tickets will still be accepted after July 31 but those with tickets purchased before March 31 have to pay the difference between the fare then and the current price. If a fuel surcharge is approved for August 1, then those with paper tickets purchased after April 1 will have to go through the booth to pay it.

For those who travel between Quadra and Cortes, paper tickets will continue to be sold at the Campbell River terminal (cash or credit card) and at Heriot Bay (cash only) because BCF still doesn't have means of connecting the Heriot Bay terminal to its main computer system so the Experience Card can be used to pay fares there.

The same problem exists at the Hornby terminal on Denman, on the Brentwood Bay-Mill Bay route and between Langdale and Gambier & Keats Islands. The sale of prepaid paper tickets will continue on these four routes until they are able to process Experience Cards.

The FAC has repeatedly emphasized the need for a card reader at the foot passenger waiting room in Campbell River to avoid congestion at the booth, but BCF seems to have a difficult time finding technologists who can come up the equipment and system software to do what car rental agencies have been able to do for quite some time-have their lot attendant scan a bar code, charge your card and give you a receipt when you return the car without having to go into the office.

For those summer residents and visitors on Quadra and Cortes who want to better understand how the Experience Card works and how to cash in any old paper tickets for credit on the card, you can go to www.discoveryislander.ca, choose April 11 from the list of “Recent Back Issues,” and go to page 7 to read my report, titled “Learning BC Ferries' New Card Game.”

Once again, I encourage anyone who puts money on a card and doesn't register it to write down the card and verification numbers on the backside in case you lose your card. If you have those numbers, you can register the card, report it lost and get a new one to access your remaining funds. Otherwise, you'll be out of luck.