Frustrated by soaring ferry costs that make it increasingly difficult to leave Powell River for family visits, Laural Eacott turned to the world's largest online petition platform in an attempt to get government attention.
And she certainly got it Tuesday, when a list of more than 20,000 names collected over the past year on Change.org was tabled in the B.C. legislature. The petition calls for BC Ferries to be stripped of its independent status and be returned to the jurisdiction of the provincial highways department, which could provide it with additional funding.
"I hear the voices of folks in coastal communities loud and clear," Transportation Minister Todd Stone said shortly after Ms. Eacott's petition was tabled in the legislature.
But Mr. Stone said his government, which in 2003 privatized BC Ferries in an attempt to make it more cost effective, isn't going to change course now.
"A petition of that size certainly makes me reflect – but what it does for me is it makes me double down on our efforts to attack this affordability challenge at BC Ferries," he said.
The government has been under fire for allowing BC Ferries to reduce services while steadily increasing fares.
Ms. Eacott said in communities such as hers, on the Sunshine Coast, the cost of ferries has become so high – a trip out costs about $120 – that families are limiting how much travelling they do. For her, that means fewer trips to visit her children in the Okanagan.
In other communities, there are complaints that reduced services and increased costs are hurting businesses.
"I understand the pain to varying degrees that's been felt in different communities, but we are certainly confident we're going to be the government that actually fixes BC Ferries for the long term," Mr. Stone said.
He said his government wants a service that is "affordable and sustainable" in the long run, but he is also pushing for an end to fare increases. The next scheduled hike, of about 4 per cent, is set to take place April 1.
Vicki Huntington, the Independent MLA who tabled the petition, said the high number of signatures shows "that there are a lot of people in this province that are pretty concerned about the level of service that they are getting."
She urged the government to "take a good hard look at whether it's reasonable and fiscally responsible to move BC Ferries back into the Ministry [of Transportation]."
Jim Abram, chair of the Strathcona Regional District, an electoral area that sprawls over central Vancouver Island and part of the mainland coast, said ferries should be subsidized as though they are an extension of the highway system.
"It's pretty obvious from the public perspective, from the people that actually use the ferry system, that they can't afford it any more," he said. "You have to reduce the fares. You can't keep this upwards spiral."
Beat Steiner, owner of Tweedsmuir Park Lodge just outside Bella Coola, said that when BC Ferries cut services last year it had a devastating impact on tourism.
During the summer, tourists used to drive to Bella Coola, then take a ferry to the north end of Vancouver Island, completing what became known as the Circle Route. But BC Ferries ended that service because it was losing money.
On Quadra Island, Cameron Pirie, president and general manager of Walcan Seafood Ltd., said because of a costly ferry commute, he couldn't hire enough people to handle a record salmon run last year.
BC Ferries, which has a fleet of 35 vessels, got about $180-million in government subsidies last year. Long a Crown corporation, BC Ferries in 2003 became a self-financing company, under contract to the province.