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General News · 30th July 2008
John Sprungman
Card-carrying Quadra and Cortes ferry users will pay about 20% more, starting Friday, Aug. 1, when new fuel surcharges are added to almost all of BC Ferries' fares due to an unanticipated leap in the cost of fuel this year. Last year BC Ferries says it spent $86.8 million for fuel. This year they expect the bill to be $140 million.

Last week the B.C. Ferry Commission approved surcharges of 17.6% for the 18 minor routes, 10.3% for the major runs between Vancouver Island and the mainland, and 9.2% for service from Horseshoe Bay to the Sunshine Coast.

Those percentages, however, relate to average fare prices that are higher than the prepaid Experience Card rates and lower than the single trip cash fares. The dollar amounts of the surcharges will be the same whether you pay with your card or with cash (See Table). The result is increases between 19.5% and 21.2% on card fares but “only” 11.9 % to 12.6% on the cash prices.

The surcharges raise the prepaid cost of a Campbell River-Quadra Island roundtrip for two people in an underheight vehicle from $19.35 to $23.45, a 21.2% increase.

The same trip cost $10.65 in 2003 when the Liberal government passed legislation quasi-privatizing BC Ferries and requiring the new company to move toward user pay in an effort to reduce provincial subsidies.

A Cortes-bound couple in a car will see $53.90 deducted from their card account for a roundtrip to Campbell River. That's a 20.3% increase from $44.80. The same trip cost $26.17 in 2003.

The Liberals have managed to more than double our fares to both islands in less than five years by forcing BC Ferries to pass through increased expenses to its customers.

Adding surcharges of equal amounts to both card and cash fares also narrows the gap between the two. Yesterday the card price was 57.8% of the cash price to Quadra. Today it's 62.5%. The ratio from Campbell River to Cortes was 61.4%. Now it's 65.6%.

Two days before the Ferry Commission approved the surcharges, the chairs of the coast's 12 Ferry Advisory Committees sent the media a news release warning that “surging ferry fares could threaten the viability of BC Ferries' whole system and cause substantial economic and social trauma to coastal communities.”

Three weeks earlier, the FAC Chairs submitted a paper to Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon, calling on the provincial government to work with them to develop a strategy to “ensure the long-term sustainability of coastal ferry service.” We're still waiting for a response.

Falcon on Christy Clark
On the day the surcharge was approved, CKNW radio's Christy Clark had Falcon on her show and asked, “Is there going to be any more money from the Province to help bear the burden of these increased fuel costs, Minister?”

“Certainly not in the short term,” he said, “because we've run some numbers on this, trying to figure out how we can deal with it, and, Christy, I can tell you and I can tell all the listeners out there: it's gets very, very expensive very, very quickly. So that's not the answer.

“I think,” he added, “we're going to have to look at, talk to the communities about service levels, try and figure out ways we can run the system maybe a little more intelligently.”

“You mean reducing service levels?” she asked.

“Possibly reducing the number of trips to certain of the islands,” Falcon said, “possibly looking at, as ferries has talked about, maybe there's got to be a separate card or fee that can be for those that live fulltime on island-dependent (sic) communities. There might be something they can do there.”

Clark, a former Liberal MLA and Minister of Education, then said, “Lots of those ferries, at least on the smaller routes, are jammed, at least in the summer, if you reduce the level of service, if that's one of the things that you're considering, won't you just make it way harder for people to get on the ferries?”

“Yeah, and clearly you wouldn't want to do it in peak seasons,” Falcon replied. “Nobody's saying let's do anything stupid here, but I think that one of the discussions at least we can start to have with those communities is to say, look, if we can find some savings by reducing frequency, particularly during the times of the year where it's not peak, where you haven't got the jam situation, maybe that might make some sense. I don't know. I just think that's a discussion that's probably worth having as part of a broader discussion to how we all work together to deal with this.”

Repeatedly Falcon referred to lump sum numbers to claim that the province is not only providing a lot of money for ferries but also an increased amount each year.

Clark suggested ferry users will look at the billions the government is spending on the Sea-to-Sky highway, the Gateway project and lower mainland transit, and “they'll say your priorities are quite clear: they don't lie with people who live in coastal communities.”

“Well, explain that to me,” Falcon shot back. “Show me one other community that gets over $150 million every single year to support transportation. Name the community.”

Spinning The Numbers
In fact, it's hard to even count the number of coastal and island communities that benefit from the 22 ferry routes which are partially supported by the government's service fee.

As for Falcon's $150 million, he's rounding up from the 2008 fiscal year total of $148.6 million, to which the federal government contributed $25.8 million, an annual subsidy for public marine transportation as an extension of the Trans-Canada highway system.

This tax money covers a lot of different expenses for which the province reimburses BC Ferries, including about $31.7 million for the northern routes and $17.3 million for travel by seniors, students and medical patients on all the routes, more than half of that on the three major routes.

The remaining $100.6 million went to service fees that included 19 BC Ferries-operated routes and eight routes which BCF has contracted out. The net service fee for the 18 minor routes which include Quadra and Cortes has been between $69 and $70 million since 2003. There's been no significant increase in our service fee while our fares have doubled.

There won't be a surcharge on the northern routes because the government is covering their extra fuel costs for the runs between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert and from Rupert to the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Falcon told Cristy Clark that the north “is a particularly unique situation where they have a 16-hour journey. That utilizes a heck of a lot of fuel, and, for small ferry-dependent communities, they clearly are going to need some help on a long journey like that.”

The question remains: when are our small ferry-dependent communities going to deserve some help on our shorter journeys?

The day after the surcharges were approved, Premier Gordon Campbell announced a federal-provincial partnership to spend $231 million on upgrading B.C. highways.

The first project: $79 million for a new 9km, four-lane road between Winfield (pop. 10,000, like Salt Spring Island) and Oyama (pop., 1,000, like nearby Galiano Island). The new road will be built just west of an existing two-lane provincial highway that connects the two towns which lie between Kelowna and Vernon in a Liberal riding.

Time for Action !
Comment by norberto rodriguez on 2nd August 2008
There is no question that Cortes island is a ferry-dependent community, and there is no question that the price of gas will keep going up.

We can’t do much about question number two, but I think it is time to look for alternatives to reduce our dependency on the ferry. Maybe Mr. Falcon is not that wrong by suggesting "potential service cuts."

I have said before we should take a serious consideration to reducing the ferry service for those months the ferry is highly under-utilized. It not only inefficient, it is fundamentally wrong for several reasons. Let’s check a few numbers:

According to BCFerries, for the year ending March 31, 2006, the Cortes ferry made 2,155 roundtrips and carried 62,182 vehicles, averaging 14-15 vehicles per one-way trip, which they calculated as 48% of deck capacity.

This means at least half of the year the average was below 30% capacity, meaning many days the average is below 15% capacity. I personally have been in the ferry a few times, when there are only 3 or 4 cars. I think no one will argue that this a terrible waste of energy and tax money !

And of course, no matter how inefficient the ferry is used, the cost for BCFerries is always the same, the came crew and the same amount of fuel is consumed.

Besides, we need also to take into consideration the amount of greenhouse gas emissions the ferry is producing, regardless of how many cars it carries, every day the Tenaka produces about 3.5 tonnes of C02.

In these days that we are trying to look for some ways to reduce our carbon footprints, it seems to me this is also wrong.

The option of Reducing the Ferry Service for those months so under-utilized (from October to April) requires serious consideration. Let me present some possibilities:

a). Reduce the service to 4 days per week. We may cut Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays each week.

b). Reduce in half the number of daily runs, without cutting any day.

c). Same as option a), plus adding a Cortes-Campbell River passenger-only service for the 3 days we cut the full ferry. Maybe make some arrangements with the Discovery Launch water taxi?

The above alternatives will represent substantial cost savings for BCFerries and at the same time a good reduction on greenhouse emissions. Therefore they will not require to keep increasing the fares so frequently.

I know of other islands in the area that have the same problem are thinking on this possibility.

We now that the cost of gas is not going back to previous prices. If anything, it will continue to go up and up. And we know that the cost of gas has a tremendous impact on all the goods and services we import, about 80% of our regular consumption?

I am beginning to feel that affordable housing is not the main issue in Cortes, it is turning to be affordable living. No one said that living in paradise was cheap... right ?

Therefore, if by reducing the number of daily runs may help in avoiding more increases in the ferry fares, I suggest we should seriously evaluate this possibility.

So, can we seriously consider the following questions:

- how many ferry trips are enough to cover our needs?
- what are other ways of transportation?
- how can we minimize our use and dependency of the ferries?
- what are the benefits of not using the ferries that much?
- how can I find more enjoyment in our community and our local things?
Good Job !
Comment by Walker Evans on 1st August 2008
With all due respect we heard all this on the 6 o'clock news 2 days ago. It seems to me that the Ferry Advisory Committee is merely another vehicle to disseminate the same information as David Hahn, perhaps with a different spin. I guess this is Cortes and not everybody has TV's but thank Gord for free public internet access ! Sorry but we're getting a little cynical at this point. Tell us what we can do other than write more 'letters of protest' or sign petitions. I don't believe for one minute that our heart-felt protestations will do a bit of good. How could anyone at this point ?!