BC Ferries passengers face service cuts, fare increases for seniors and the lure of slot machines under a series of measures proposed by the provincial government as the corporation teeters on the tipping point of affordability.
The changes announced by Transportation Minister Todd Stone will mean an 8-per-cent reduction in the number of sailings and fare increases for seniors worth $6-million annually starting next year.
BC Ferries is seeing its lowest passenger and vehicle traffic in decades, even as labour and fuel costs have soared. Labour costs have increased by 30 per cent since 2004, while fuel costs have more than doubled in that time. As well, the semi-private, quasi-Crown corporation is facing significant infrastructure costs to maintain its aging fleet and terminals.
Seniors enjoy free fares on roughly one million trips per year when travelling Monday to Thursday on the major and minor routes. Starting next April, they will pay 50 per cent of the regular fare. That is expected to reduce seniors' travel by about 15 per cent.
"There is going to be some pain with these changes," Mr. Stone told reporters at a news conference. But he said higher ferry fares across the board are not sustainable – rising costs are already driving down ridership. He said he wants to see fares rise at no more than the rate of inflation.
The pain will be felt in ferry-dependent communities like Saltspring Island, where roughly one-quarter of residents are seniors.
Retired physician Bryan Dawson, 84, has lived on Saltspring Island for the past 24 years with his wife. "It's the only way we can get off the island. There isn't another system at all – there's no other option. This will affect a great many people."
There will be another round of consultation with coastal communities, but Mr. Stone made it clear the cost-cutting measures are going ahead.
"I think the only way to do something about it would be if all the seniors decided to stop travelling on the ferry for a few months," Dr. Dawson said. "That might make [the government] sit up, I don't know."
The Transportation Minister also said the government is looking at a pilot project to install slot machines on its busiest route, between Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen, as one way to generate revenue. If successful, gambling could be added to the other major routes between Vancouver Island and the mainland.
Rob Hadley, president of Vancouver Hypnotherapy Inc., has worked with more than 5,000 patients battling addiction. He thinks putting slot machines on BC Ferries will have serious consequences for those with gambling addictions.
"If you are locked on a ferry for two hours and you see those flashing lights, you might go to an old habit," he said
In all, the ferry service will cut almost 6,900 round-trip sailings each year, on the minor and northern routes.
Last week, the ferry corporation announced changes in executive and managerial compensation after a public backlash over a generous bonus structure that defied the rules set down by the government for Crown corporations. But the total savings from those changes still left BC Ferries with $19-million in cuts over the next two years.