Amid rising costs and declining ridership at B.C. Ferries, the provincial government is asking riders to rank their most palatable service cuts as the company looks to save $26-million over the next four years.
Transportation Minister Mary Polak announced a public consultation process on Monday, saying "external forces ... have posed significant challenges to the coastal ferry service."
"B.C. Ferries is going to have to make adjustments and find efficiencies – which it is doing – and we are going to have to make service adjustments," she said.
The corporation receives $150-million from the provincial government and $30-million from the federal government annually. To address current challenges, the province is also chipping in an additional $80-million in funding over the next four years.
B.C. Ferries is aiming to save $15-million in "efficiency improvements" and another $4-million from service cuts to routes between Vancouver Island and the mainland implemented weeks ago, Ms. Polak said. Ferries commissioner Gord Macatee has also approved a 12-per-cent fare increase over the next three years.
Riders are asked to give input on how to save the remaining $26-million that is needed at one of 38 public forums in 30 communities throughout B.C. taking place now until Dec. 21. Dates, feedback forms and webinar information are available at coastalferriesengagement.ca. A final report is expected in February.
The first public open house is scheduled for Nov. 6 in Sandspit.
Documents released by the Ministry of Transportation give a sense of B.C. Ferries' financial situation. Fuel costs increased by 140 per cent, to $120-million from $50-million in 2004, for example, while labour costs rose 24 per cent to $305-million from $245-million in the same period, due in part to a mandatory increase in staff levels in accordance with federal safety regulations.
Meanwhile, ridership is on the decline, with B.C. Ferries reporting its lowest vehicle numbers in 13 years and the lowest passenger volume in 21 years in 2011-12. Riders are asked to consider service reductions on underutilized routes, as most operate well below 50 per cent of capacity – some with more crew than passengers, according to the Ministry of Transportation.
Of 25 routes, only the two biggest – Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen and Departure Bay-Horseshoe Bay – made money in 2011-12, the documents show. The rest suffered shortfalls, with the Port Hardy-Prince Rupert route taking the biggest hit, running a $28.6-million shortfall.
Riders will also be asked to weigh in on bigger visions for the future of B.C. ferries, Ms. Polak said, such as the possibility of cable ferries, passenger-only ferries and bridges on smaller routes.
Funding shortfalls could average $56-million a year from 2016 to 2020 and continue at $85-million a year from 2020 to 2024, Mr. Macatee estimated.
NDP ferries critic Gary Coons said the urgent appeal for public input shows the B.C. Liberal government never had a plan for B.C. Ferries.
"They've reached their financial tipping point," he said. "I think their coming tour is an admission of this. People should make presentations, have some input, but it's a very complicated issue and a month of travelling won't fix it. We need a strategy, a vision."
Mike Corrigan, president and CEO of B.C. Ferries, said he is often asked why the corporation is not leading the process.
"The answer is quite simple," he said. "We'll be supportive of the process and have technical people there, but this is clearly a government policy issue. The sessions are about service levels and service fees, which is in the hands of government. Our role at B.C. Ferries is to run the safest and most efficient ferry service that we can."
Editor's Note: The quotes in the final two paragraphs of an earlier version of this story were attributed to ferries commissioner Gord Macatee by mistake. This online version has been corrected.