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General News · 4th December 2008
John Sprungman

Student, Cycle Fare Worry Unwarranted

Old news recycled as if new can result in a lot of wasted energy directed at problems that don’t exist.

A few weeks ago, the Vancouver Sun, using a Freedom of Information request, exhumed an audit of the Ministry of Transportation’s student travel subsidy program and published a story under the headline, “Scrap ferry subsidy program, report recommends.”

This immediately prompted an NDP news release that said, "The program to ensure students get access to their schools is in chaos, and now we have an internal audit that proposes B.C. Ferries start charging fares to students."

No one, it seems, paid attention to the date of the document (August 2006) or the Ministry of Transportation’s reponse on the last page to the auditors’ idea of discontinuing student discounts:
“The ministry anticipates that the mandate for the program will be clarified and communicated to BCFS.”

This is the same study that two years ago prompted BCF to require students to sign in at the toll booth if they take the ferries home to Quadra or Cortes at times other than when the school buses drop them off at the Campbell River terminal.

It made the point that BC Ferries was counting students (and charging the government for their travel) without sufficient documentation to satisfy an audit.

While I was away for the last two weeks, Ferry Advisory Committee member Connie Burns from Quadra filled in for me at a Nanaimo meeting of the FAC Chairs with staff from the Ministry of Transportation.

Connie reports that Nancy Merston, Director of the Marine Branch at TRAN, told the meeting that audits such as the one that the Sun dug up are “done routinely” and the ministry “never considered dropping the program.

And Bikes For Free

Concern about the introduction of a fare for bicycles was brought up at the Town Hall and Ferry Advisory Committee meetings on Quadra in November. BCF’s Chief Financial Officer Rob Clarke said he got a “clear message” of opposition from Quadra’s residents and from our FAC.

There is no charge for bikes on the Quadra and Cortes ferries now, but on some other routes cyclists have to pay $2. BCF presented the FAC with a “fare rationalization” discussion paper, suggesting that a fair system-wide fare for bikes would be $1.10.

Some FACs support charging for bikes, partly because they sometimes get large numbers of cyclists from clubs who take up a lot of deck space. Clarke said the lack of consensus meant there would be no change in bicycle fares in the foreseeable future.

BCF has little incentive to make these changes in the face of opposition because they do not result in more net revenue for the whole system.

MLAs Miss the Boat

It is harder to explain the “decision” regarding ferry fares of the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services which consists of 10 MLAs (6 Liberal and 4 NDP) who toured the province this fall seeking input for next year’s BC budget.

The report states:
“The Finance Committee received a clear message from many written submissions that ferry fares on southern coastal routes are having a detrimental effect on isolated communities. Residents of the Gulf Islands, for example, reported that increases since 2003 have led to fewer visitors and less business, negatively affecting their communities’ social and economic fabric. They requested government consider reducing fares on minor routes.”

The conclusion:
“The Financial Committee thinks it is important to sustain coastal communities in all parts of the province. Therefore, we would ask government to encourage B.C. Ferries to rationalize ferry fares on minor coastal routes on an equitable basis.”

Finance Committee chair Randy Hawes, Liberal MLA for Maple Ridge & Mission, was asked in an email where this idea came from. He replied:

“I do not take the minor coastal routes so am not familiar with what the fares are and how they differentiate from the other routes. On the committee there were some members who have communities on the minor routes and it was their recommendation which they claim meets the requests they have from constituents and those that spoke to us regarding ferry fares. The claim was that there is some unfairness in the way in which ferry fares are charged. “

In fact, not one MLA on the Finance Committee has a ferry-dependent community in his or her riding.

Fare equity is not a new idea, and if it had any value in terms of reducing BC Ferries’ overall costs, it would have been implemented by BCF itself or certainly under an order from the Ferry Commissioner.

The end result, if it could be attained, would be somewhat higher fares on some routes and somewhat lower fares on others, tantamount to redistributing the deck chairs among ships that are becoming less and less affordable for all the people who use them.

At the Toll Booth

A 33% reduction of all BCF fares for December and January is now in effect due to Premier Gordon Campbell’s decision to spend as much as $20 million in tax dollars in response to a substantial drop in ferry traffic at the end of summer and in an effort to resusitate travel over the holiday season.

In addition, because of the drop in oil prices, the remaining half of the August 1 fuel surcharge will be eliminated Friday, Dec. 5 on the minor routes and Friday, Dec. 19 on the majors.

For Quadra travelers, the Experience Card roundtrip is now $2.85 for a passenger and $10.10 for a car and driver. From Campbell River to Cortes, the card rate is $6.65 for a passenger and $23.40 for a car and driver. On February 1, the 33% discount comes off. All of BCF fares and schedules can be accessed at www.bcferries.com.

For those who travel solely between Cortes and Quadra, special paper tickets, good only for December and January, can be purchased at the reduced rates. Paper tickets purchased before Dec. 1 can also be traded for the Dec/Jan tickets--two will get you three. Details at www.bcferries.com/bcfservicenotice?id=76048.

An improvement to Experience Card use is also promised in February. BCF says it will finally have its computer systems configured so that a number of cards can draw on the funds in one registered account. This will mean a couple, family or business will be able to link their cards to one pool of funds which can be topped up with $40 for passenger-only use or $75 for vehicle and passenger use.