The B.C. government is sticking with its plans – highly unpopular in some quarters – to reduce service on 16 BC Ferries routes to save $18.9-million this year.
Transportation Minister Todd Stone said in a news conference Wednesday that despite extensive public consultation since the widely unpopular cuts were first announced in November, the reductions will go ahead largely as proposed, starting April 28.
After detailing the proposed cuts, BC Ferries undertook a public consultation process to get feedback, with more than 3,700 people attending open houses. People also filled out 2,300 feedback forms and sent in more than 1,300 written submissions.
"The residents in our coastal communities … are passionate about their coastal ferry service," said Mr. Stone, who agreed most people were opposed to the proposed service reductions.
But he apparently didn't hear anything that persuaded him to make any substantial changes to the original plan.
Mr. Stone did say some of the sailing schedules would be adjusted because of public feedback, but otherwise it was full steam ahead for the government's initial cost-cutting plan.
The most significant concession was to add a few more sailings than first proposed on the Bella Coola-Bella Bella connection. The initial proposal was to have just one sailing a week on that route, but an outcry from the North Coast tourism industry persuaded the government to make it three or possibly four sailings a week during the summer. Bella Coola will still lose its direct ferry connection to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island, however, which tourism operators said was the key to a popular circle route.
Beat Steiner, who runs Bella Coola Heli Sports and Tweedsmuir Park Lodge said the schedule as planned will ruin summer tourism on the central coast.
"We'll seriously have to consider shutting down for the summer months," he said of his popular and historic lodge on the banks of the Bella Coola River.
Mr. Steiner said the route as scheduled will mean travellers have to sail to Bella Bella to transfer to a ferry heading south to Vancouver Island.
"That's a 19-hour sailing, with no services," he said. "I don't see any tourists taking that trip [to Bella Bella]."
Mr. Stone said making the choices on what to cut was difficult.
"These are very, very tough decisions," he said.
Mr. Stone said the changes are driven by a need to reduce costs on BC Ferries.
"Our system must be affordable, efficient and sustainable," he said, adding that the cost to taxpayers for the system is of paramount concern.
Mr. Stone said taxpayers have provided an additional $86.6-million to BC Ferries through 2016 to help keep the system afloat. He said that brings provincial and federal funding for ferries to more than $200-million this year and to $1.7-billion over the last 10 years.
"There's no more room there [for taxpayer support]," Mr. Stone said.
He said BC Ferries will also go ahead with plans to test out placing slot machines on some ferries to help increase revenues, but it has not yet been decided when, or on which ferries, gambling will be promoted.
Effective April 1, seniors travelling Monday to Thursday will be required to pay half-price for passenger fares. Currently those 65 and older ride for free on those days.
Mr. Stone stressed the need for BC Ferries to become more cost efficient, saying the service has been struggling financially for the past 20 years.
A key goal of the cuts, he said, is to reduce sailings that do not operate to peak efficiency, such as those that have far fewer cars and passengers than they are capable of carrying.