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Two women walk along a boardwalk at the Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal in West Vancouver, B.C. The Queen of Oak Bay is in the background. (DARRYL DYCK For The Globe and Mail)
Two women walk along a boardwalk at the Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal in West Vancouver, B.C. The Queen of Oak Bay is in the background. (DARRYL DYCK For The Globe and Mail)

Gary Mason

Cost-cutting at BC Ferries long overdue Add to ...

For years, BC Ferries has been burdened by money-losing sailings that have cost the corporation millions. Still, successive provincial governments have chosen to subsidize those hard-to-defend runs rather than make the correct, but politically risky, move of actually cutting them.

Those days, mercifully, are over. Transportation Minister Todd Stone announced this week that he’s ordered the ferry corporation to eliminate several minor coastal sailings and some northern ones as well that were impossible to justify under any business model. This will help the corporation save about $14-million over the next three years. An additional $5-million will be carved out of the ferries budget by making some yet-unspecified changes on major routes.

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Additionally, the minister announced that he was going to reduce the ferry subsidy to seniors and explore gaming as a potential revenue booster.

Let the howling begin.

In fact, the howling should have commenced years ago, by taxpayers fed up with subsidizing an operation that was wasteful and inefficient. Before Mr. Stone’s orders this week, BC Ferries was set to run a $564-million shortfall in the next 10 years. (This, after taxpayers subsidized the system to the tune of $1.4-billion over the past decade). Government is now bankrolling the quasi-Crown corporation by as much as $200-million a year. Meantime, ticket prices are rising at scales of twice, three times the rate of inflation. And billions will need to be spent over the next decade to replace aging vessels.

BC Ferries will always have to be subsidized to some extent; probably to a large extent. But that doesn’t mean it should operate like money isn’t a concern because taxpayers will underwrite any losses. Some of the sailings the government has ordered slashed were, on average, 20 per cent full. If Ferries was a privately run airline, for instance, those runs would have been gone years ago. Cue the lament: ‘But the ferries are an extension of our highway system!’ The government would never have built highways to some of the places these ferries now go. Not a chance. I know there are many fine people who live on these idyllic little islands for whom service reductions will be a hardship. And there also many wealthy British Columbians who may not get to their waterfront homes as easily. I feel badly for them.

Just as there are some seniors who are going to be affected by no longer being able to travel free on the ferries between Monday and Thursday. They’ll now have to pay 50 per cent of the fare. Again, that seems entirely fair. There were many seniors taking advantage of the free passage who absolutely could have paid full fare. And yes, there are some on modest fixed incomes who will feel this. But when you have an operation that is being massively subsidized in the way BC Ferries is, you can’t afford to offer anything for free.

Which brings us to gaming, something the ferry corporation has mulled over for years as a potential revenue source. Of all the measures Mr. Stone announced this is certainly the most contentious.

There are many people rightly wary of any decision to make gambling more accessible, given the enormous social problems it causes. But the gaming genie is out of the bottle and it’s not going back in. If the government and BC Lottery Corp. did more on the education and rehabilitation side of gaming, a proposal such as this one might be easier to consider. But it hasn’t.

Concerns that ferry passengers who are gambling addicts would be a captive audience on a boat with slot machines are valid. But the truth is addicts can gamble any time they want anyway; they gamble on BC Ferries already with their smartphones. Slot machines on ferries and cruise ships aren’t new. In fact, there are ferries in Europe that also have bars.

The government is trying to find ways to boost revenues in order to keep fare increases to the rate of inflation. Not an easy task. Something has to give. Immediately, that will be cuts to service and perks for some riders. It might mean piloting slot machines aboard major runs.

But even then, it won’t come close to putting a meaningful dent in the massive subsidy that it takes to operate the ferry system. That would take measures of a different scale entirely – not to mention uncommon political courage as well.

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