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Islanders feeling the pinch of B.C.’s skyrocketing ferry fees

Forgive Paul Ryan for developing a bit of a complex. While he has lived in B.C. for decades, increasingly he is wondering why he and others who chose to live on the Gulf Islands are treated differently than those living elsewhere in the province.

"It's not fair," Mr. Ryan said over the phone the other day. "It's not like we're chopped liver here. We pay our taxes like everyone else. We are generating capital that goes into the economy. And yet we're being treated like second-class citizens."

And Mr. Ryan and his fellow Islanders have felt this way for some time now.

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The coastal ferry system is not something that is there simply to transport tourists. It is there to help those living on the islands get to larger centres to shop and get supplies. Sometimes, it is needed to get kids to schools. It is certainly vital for commerce. And yet the cost to use the system has been skyrocketing.

In 2007, the bill for a car and driver going from Vancouver Island to Hornby was $39.22. In 2012, it was $65.20 – a 66 per cent increase. Fares have gone up on major routes by about 50 per cent over that same period. Increasingly, he says, Islanders' lives are severely affected by the burden ferry fares put on their budgets.

What particularly irks him is that the ferry system runs on a mostly user-pay model. After the cuts the government is imposing on BC Ferries, Mr. Ryan, who is chair of the coastal island ferry advisory committee, says that ferry travellers will be responsible for more than 90 per cent of the corporation's operating budget.

"So we're paying for more than 90 per cent of the costs of the ferry system and yet those using BC Transit, or Skytrain or the Canada Line are paying only about 40 per cent of the operating costs," Mr. Ryan said. "That is completely unfair. Why is one region of the province being treated so differently than another?

Why, he wonders as well, are inland ferries free for the people who use them? Some of them go the same distance as coastal ferries.

Like many, Mr. Ryan believes the reason BC Ferries ridership is down over the past few years is directly related to the increase in ticket prices. He would like BC Ferries to do a pilot project in which it drops fares along certain routes to see what happens to ridership. Mr. Ryan believes that the lower ticket costs would drive ridership growth that would more than make up for the revenue lost by reducing fares.

Businesses on many of the islands that rely on the ferry system began feeling the pinch long ago. Mr. Ryan says the high costs have already had an impact on the economies of many coastal communities. If businesses go under, it will affect the provincial government's bottom line as well.

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His view of the world is decidedly different from that of Transportation Minister Todd Stone, who does not believe the ferries are an extension of the highway system.

"It's our highway system," Mr. Ryan says. "I mean, what would we do without it? We wouldn't be able to go anywhere. Imagine people living in smaller communities on the Mainland not being able to leave where they live because there were not roads out of town. Well, if you continue to raise ticket fares, people are increasingly going to be stuck on the islands because they won't be able to afford to get off.

"People are moving off the islands. Young families can't afford to live here any more. It's really horrible to see what is happening in many small communities. It's tragic really."

Sad as it may be, it is doubtful the government will have a change of heart about the planned cuts. There are advantages to living on one of the idyllic little islands that dot the B.C. coast and there are disadvantages. The government looks after those areas with the greatest populations first; certainly the needs of those living on islands such as Quadra or Hornby come after. In some cases, long after.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More


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