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For a ferry system gone adrift, problems of the future must be faced now

The Northern Expedition on it's way into Skidegate on the Haida Gwaii October 3, 2012.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Laurie Chisholm used to work at the corporate level of the doughnut industry.

She bailed out 16 years ago to live on the remote archipelago of Haida Gwaii, off British Columbia's north coast, in the tiny hamlet of Sandspit.

The only route to work, to the high school, to the bank on nearby Graham Island, is by ferryboat.

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When she travels on a near-empty sailing of the BC Ferries ship Kwuna – part of her commute to work in Skidegate – she recalls what she learned in the executive suite about pushing pastries.

"If you are looking at the crullers, and there is only one left in the basket, do you want the last one? No."

In the doughnut trade, it means making more doughnuts so the basket is always full. For BC Ferries, she figures, it means setting the fares at a level that helps fill the ship.

BC Ferries is navigating a critical point in its history.

When it was established as a Crown corporation in 1960, it had a mandate to nurture coastal communities – and, by extension, the province's economy. Towns like Sandspit were built around this promise and remain utterly dependent upon it.

Today BC Ferries is one of the largest ferry fleets in the world, a lifeline for coastal residents and businesses, and a key service for the tourism industry.

But the fleet – with an average age of 30 years – needs renewal. Ridership is down – on many sailings, the crew outnumbers the passengers.

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And the government in Victoria is balking at increased subsidies.

In recent years, the service has crept toward a "user pay" model, but rates appear to have reached a tipping point.

This week, the ferries commission approved rate hikes of roughly 4 per cent each year for the next three years.

For Ms. Chisholm, the daily commute costs $30. When she buys a jug of milk, a bag of apples or a carton of eggs at her local SuperValu, she pays nearly double the price for the same items on the shelf of a grocery store in Vancouver. People try to avoid travel, which means jamming in errands. "When you have lunch, do you want to stand for 20 minutes in the bank lineup? People are scrambling to afford to come over."

The challenge

But the next round of fare hikes won't be enough: Significant service cuts are also in the future. Next month, Transportation Minister Mary Polak will launch a round of consultations to determine what those cuts will look like.

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Ms. Polak, who once lived in Skidegate on Haida Gwaii, says the coming changes are not going to be easy.

"For people who have lived their whole lives in the Lower Mainland, it's often difficult for them to conceive of the challenges faced by people living in ferry-dependent communities," she said. But she added that taxpayers can't continue to subsidize near-empty vessels. "We now have to look to the future, how can we reflect what British Columbians want, without costing them more?"

While Ms. Polak wants to prune service levels, others are urging a longer-term plan, to think differently about the future, including a move away from a service dominated by ferries built to carry cars and trucks.

By next year, BC Ferries must launch a multibillion-dollar capital spending plan to replace a string of aging vessels. These decisions will shape the service for decades to come.

"We need clear guidance on where it is going to go. We have a $2.5-billion capital plan over the next eight years, we have time to make choices," said ferries commissioner Gord Macatee.

The last round of investment shapes what we have today, where the profitable routes that serve to link Metro Vancouver with southern Vancouver Island have been marketed as a travel experience, with services and entertainment designed to squeeze more discretionary spending out of passengers.

Gary Coons, the BC NDP ferries critic, says that is the wrong path.

"It's morphed into this cruise ship tourism product versus a part of our highway network," he said. "That's not what we need in British Columbia. Since Day One, we had a social and economic contract with the communities that depend on the ferries for goods and services. We have got to get back to that and treat it like an essential link."

Andrew Merilees, mayor of the Village of Masset, worries that service cuts will only make things worse. "The ferry is our highway, it is the only way on and off the island," he said. "We need more than a consultation for a preconceived outcome. They are not looking at new models, they are just looking at ways to slash services."

The future

Beyond the debate of who pays, the other question is, what will service look like decades from now? Some are arguing a wholesale rethink of the service – to one that focuses on moving people not cars. Perhaps BC Ferries needs to think about passenger-only ships that run between Metro Vancouver and the Gulf Islands, for example, with new terminals linked to public transit.

Evan Putterill is a member of the ferry advisory committee that provides community input into the system. The time to plan that future vision is now, he says.

"But that's not the conversation that the government is willing to have right now. They just want to talk about cutting services because they are scared that it will cost money."

With an election looming, a scary and uncomfortable conversation is the last thing the government might want right now. But the ferries commissioner, Mr. Macatee, warns that it can't wait. BC Ferries needs to make those decisions in a matter of months in order to get building.

"The decisions around the purchases of the vessels are really significant and they stay with us a long time, if we make the wrong choices."

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