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In ferry debate, B.C. government sails too cautiously into sea of public anger

No one likes making unpleasant decisions more than government. To do so means upsetting people. And upset people can exact a price come election time. That's why governments often delay issuing tough, no-win edicts they should have delivered long ago.

But eventually, a course of action to deal with the intractable problems of the day needs to be taken – regardless of the dimension of hostilities it may provoke. That is where the provincial government finds itself today in regards to BC Ferries.

Last week, Transportation Minister Mary Polak announced that she was launching a five-week, 38-meeting consultation tour on the future of the ferry system. I'm sure the government representatives who will be hosting the meetings in coastal communities throughout the province can't wait for them to begin.

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After all, who doesn't love to be berated by irate citizens who feel the process is a sham and that the government has already decided to cut ferry service to their cities and villages in a bid to eliminate a $26-million funding shortfall? Talk about a depressing assignment.

Fact is, the government has likely identified runs to cut in order to address an annual funding gap that is only growing. Of course, no one is going to say so now. Plus, the government has to at least pretend it is consulting with the travelling public before taking any action.

Even then, it's unlikely the governing Liberals will announce anything before next spring's election. Why diminish their electoral chances any further? After the election, this whole mess could be the New Democratic Party's problem. Given the NDP's vehement opposition to further cuts at Ferries, it could initiate a review process of its own once in government.

But someone, at some point, is going to have to deal with this matter. Continuing to throw money at a money-losing proposition is no longer an option. The numbers don't add up and haven't for some time – despite the heaps of cash thrown at the fleet each year to keep it afloat.

Here are some of the dismal facts: BC Ferries will run a $564-million shortfall in the next 10 years. Government is now bankrolling the corporation in the form of various subsidies to the tune of nearly $200-million a year. Ticket prices, already exorbitant by most measures, are going up 12 per cent over the next three years. Also, $2.5-billion needs to be spent over the next decade to replace aging vessels.

Only two routes make money – two. Meantime, the entire fleet operates at under 55-per-cent capacity. Some loads only hit 20 per cent.

But all of this isn't new. It's a problem that's existed for years – only now it's getting worse as ridership levels plunge, due in part because of thundering fee hikes deemed necessary to pay for rising costs. BC Ferries continues to chase its tail because the government has lacked the courage to take the kind of hard, voter-unfriendly action necessary to remedy the situation – or at least make it less untenable.

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The ferry corporation can't continue to raise rates (see law of diminishing returns). So there really is only one option available to find the savings it needs – cut more money-losing runs. And if that is going to upset some residents on idyllic Gulf islands who generally oppose any developments that would allow more people to move there than so be it.

Living on the islands and other coastal outposts is often a lifestyle choice. That choice comes at a cost, just as it does for people who live in, say, northern British Columbia. Certain things can be more expensive there than they are in the Lower Mainland. There are also services that won't be as good as those you might have access to in the Vancouver area. There are tradeoffs you make.

The BC Ferry system is not a continuation of the provincial highway system – as Islanders and those who live in other remote B.C. coastal communities insist. The government would never have built highways into some of the places that little-used ferries drop into now.

It's time the discussion regarding what is a financially unsustainable model moved beyond the limitations imposed by a stale old debate. The system is broken and only the kind of tough decisions that governments hate to make are going to fix it.

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