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General News · 9th October 2008
John Sprungman
The next provincial budget should “allocate sufficient ongoing funding to rescue coastal communities from increasingly unaffordable ferry fares, resulting from the government's nine-year freeze on the transportation fee at a time when BC Ferries' operating costs have soared beyond all expectations.”

That was the message Hornby Island's Tony Law took to the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services Oct. 1 when the six Liberal and four NDP members of the B.C. Legislature met in Courtenay to get public input on next year's budget.

Tony, chair of the Hornby and Denman FAC, submitted a paper on behalf of the chairs of the coast's 12 FACs (FACC), calling for “an immediate cash infusion into the minor routes of BC Ferries, including absorbing some or all of the unprecedented fuel cost increases, enabling a rollback in fares.”

Tony also drafted a detailed discussion paper for the FACC, which has been submitted to the Hon. Kevin Falcon, Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure, who has agreed to meet with three of us October 23 in Victoria. Tony and I, as co-chairs of the FACC, will attend with Islands Trustee Brian Hollingshead from the Southern Gulf Islands.

In his presentation to the Finance Committee, Tony quoted from the Budget 2009 Consultation Paper, a large format document that the government mailed to most BC households. It claims:
“Investments in BC's infrastructure are producing new economic benefits, enhancing both travel and tourism. For instance, between 2008 and 2011, the Province is making transportation infrastructure investments of $3 billion including roads, bridges, border crossing improvements, rapid transit, airports and port development.”

“There is something missing here,” Tony told the MLAs. “B.C. is a coastal province, yet there is no mention of the ferry system-the sole transportation infrastructure for many coastal communities.”

Noting that while ferries on the lakes and rivers of interior BC continue to be provided for free, including their added fuel costs, Tony pointed out that although the Coastal Ferry Act “severed” BC Ferries from direct government control over management of the system, the Province still has control over the cost of ferry service to BC residents through the annual transportation fee it provides to BC Ferries. And the current contract carries forward the same amount provided in 2003 through 2012.

Meanwhile, the Province has recognized that northern and mid-coast ferry users cannot afford further increases in fares to pay for fuel, ship replacement or terminal improvements. There was no fuel surcharge applied August 1 to the ferries between Prince Rupert and the Queen Charlotte Islands or between Rupert and Port Hardy, because the Province agreed to pick up the tab.

And the annual provincial contribution to those routes will more than triple from what it was from 2003 through 2007 to $47 million for each of the next three years as the Province pays for replacing the sunken Queen of the North and for a second brand new ship to operate on those two long routes. Meanwhile, added financing for new ships and terminal upgrades on all other routes is being financed from the fare box.

The FACC believes that the government should pay BCF's capital costs just as it funds other transportation infrastructure. Like the inland ferries, the coastal ferry service was established as part of B.C.'s highway system, but the Liberal government prefers to see it as a transportation company which it thinks should be operated like a privately owned, for-profit airline.

The FACC strongly encourages ferry users to support its position by providing their own input to the Finance Committee. You can send an MS Word or pdf document attached to an email to FinanceCommitteeleg.bc.ca or fax your thoughts to 250-356-8172. The deadline for submission is October 24. More details are available at www.leg.bc.ca/budgetconsultations.

Be sure to copy your comments to North Island MLA Claire Trevena at claire.trevena.mlaleg.bc.ca or fax them to her at 250-287-5105. Only one member of the Select Finance Committee has a BC Ferry terminal in his riding so it's important that coastal MLAs get your message too.

High Fares = Less Service
BC Ferries' CEO David Hahn just announced that BCF will be eliminating “some off-peak, under-utilized sailings” on its major runs, starting next week. The Victoria Times-Colonist said Hahn attributed a 12% decline in traffic to the “high price of gasoline and uncertainty on the economic front with Wall Street and bailouts.”

Of course, he wouldn't mention high ferry fares as a factor since that would suggest that the government's policy of reducing taxpayer support and increasing user pay is threatening the viability of his supposedly independent transportation company.

Traffic has also been slowly declining on the minor routes over the last several years, though residents of the smaller islands have less choice about where to go for our goods and services, and we can only cut back our travel so much. Tourists have a lot of choice, and many island businesses that depend on them report they saw significantly fewer visitors this summer.

The majors are BCF's big ticket item since, in addition to fares, there are profits from reservations, gift shops, food services and parking fees. But even when the majors are doing well, the profits from those routes cannot be used to “cross-subsidize” the ferries where fares do not cover costs. The government wrote that limitation into law with the Coastal Ferry Act which created B.C. Ferry Services Inc.

Likewise, BC Ferries cannot use the transportation fee it gets from the Province for the other routes to cover costs on the majors. So, when revenue isn't sufficient to pay all the bills, reducing service is their only option. Similarly, if traffic falls enough on our minor routes and the Province doesn't increase its contribution, then our “off-peak, under-utilized sailings” are also vulnerable to elimination.

BCF's Chief Operating Officer Mike Corrigan talks about “matching costs and capacity with traffic demand” to create “a more efficient operating strategy” on the majors. That will be very tricky on the minor routes where there are full loads leaving the islands in the mornings and coming back in the late afternoons but the much lighter traffic on the unavoidable return trips.

Ferry Forum on Quadra
BC Ferries has scheduled a “town meeting” at the Quadra Community Centre 7-9 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 13. Executive V-P Rob Clarke, BCF's Chief Financial Officer, will be present along with other BCF management, to hear ferry users' concerns and to answer questions. More details about this meeting when we get closer to it.

The regular fall meeting of the Campbell River-Quadra-Cortes FAC will be held the morning after. This will be the last meeting in the three-year term of the current members. Some of our group of 11 are willing to continue. Some aren't. There will be an opportunity for new members to join. The process for applying, managed by BCF, will be announced soon.

The FACC is also in the process of arranging a meeting in late November with Ministry of Transportation and Ministry of Tourism officials to discuss elements of a “Minor Route Strategy” which the FACC has been calling for to address the impact of fares on residents, businesses and tourism in ferry-dependent communities.

Many people are asking why we are still “experiencing” a 20% fuel surcharge now that the world price of a barrel of oil has descended (to under $90 on Monday), but BCF claims it is still running a substantial deficit on fuel purchased before the surcharge was implemented. It is obviously in BCF's interest to reduce or eliminate the surcharge as soon as it can to try to maintain the level of “sales” its business plan depends on.

Connection Correction
Several Cortesians with better memories than I have reminded me that the Cortes Connection has a longer history than I acknowledged in my last report.

It was actually started in 1981 by Helen Radosovic who operated a small school bus for about five years before passing the service on to Kevin and Wendy Kingwell who began using a van, known locally as the Green Machine.

The late Ken Ferguson acquired the operation in 1988. His son, Andrew, is now driving the fifth van the Ferguson family has had to purchase to keep the year-round service running three or more days a week for the last 20 years.
late night cortes ferry?
Comment by Gypsy Mama on 17th October 2008
Well it's great they are organizing a meeting so close to home and I imagine there are even quite a number of Cortesians who would attend that Quadra meeting, if only we could get home after.

What's the chance that BC Ferries would put on a late night run after the meeting Nov 13th?

Anyone else interested?

a loosing battle?
Comment by Stan J. Oliver on 9th October 2008
I would like to thank you, John, for your continued efforts in what seems to be a loosing battle. I can only imagine the amount of hours you have put into this unpaid endeavor on our behalf.

Again, I thank you and hope that you are successful at the up coming meeting with the Transport Minister.