It is a gloomy spring morning in Powell River as the 54-year-old North Island Princess pulls away from the dock.
The vehicle deck on the slow-moving catamaran is about half-full; fewer than 20 people are upstairs on a passenger deck that could hold 10 times as many. Several men from Powell River take the 35-minute ferry ride every day to Texada Island for their job at one of the quarries.
A few hours later, the North Island Princess is on its run back to Powell River with even fewer customers on the upper deck. Six youngsters ranging in age from 3 to 11 are boisterously running around the rows of battered plastic seats, their grandmothers nearby. As they do four or five times a week, the islanders are heading to Powell River for after-school activities: dance classes, karate, swimming. A few more passengers scatter along the windows.
The Powell River-Texada Island ferry has lineups in the peak summer hours but otherwise has lots of empty space. The ferry ran at 26-per-cent capacity for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2011, losing $3.7-million on its operations.
Ferry users, local businesses and municipal leaders from Powell River and Texada Island are comfortable with those numbers. They argue that the ferry system should be regarded as an extension of the highway system – roads in several areas of the province are also often empty, they say, and cost a lot to maintain.
But Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom is anything but satisfied. Just about every ferry route in the province except those leaving Vancouver loses money and the losses have been mounting in recent years. System wide, the ferries could transport almost twice as many vehicles as they now carry. Both passenger and vehicular traffic have been rapidly falling in recent years.
Mr. Lekstrom is expected to unveil a new vision for the BC Ferries Corp. within the next few weeks in response to a wide-ranging review of the system by Commissioner Gordon Macatee. In recent weeks, Mr. Lekstrom has dropped a few clues about what he is thinking.
During a review of ministry spending last week, Mr. Lekstrom spoke of a "three-legged approach." He indicated that ferry users will be expected to join with government and the ferry corporation in paying for the service. Also, he has publicly mused about whether a system with extremely low utilization rates on some routes is sustainable. "In my mind, it's not," he said.
Communities like Powell River are waiting with apprehension for his announcement. In interviews, several people here expressed fears the impact will reverberate far beyond the fare box. For them the ferry system is inextricably tied into their way of life, their jobs, the economic health of their ferry-dependent communities, even family relationships.
BC Ferries has raised fares over the past few years to make up for the loss of revenue from reduced traffic – hikes of more than 100 per cent since 2003 on some remote routes and 40 per cent on major routes – but the strategy has backfired. Traffic dropped even more, especially on the quieter routes. Anecdotal reports have surfaced of sailings with more crew than paying customers and, on at least one occasion, a sailing with no passengers at all. Passenger traffic is now at the lowest level of the past decade.
Financial problems are further compounded by government policy prohibiting subsidies to money-losing routes from the profitable ones and requiring terminals and new ships to be financed mostly through fare increases.
"The ferries is probably the No. 1 issue for our community," said Powell River Mayor Dave Formosa, who was born in the city. "We are a community depending totally on ferries."
Powell River, about 100 kilometres north of Vancouver, is accessible only by water or air. Since the late 1800s, the city has done well as a resource community handling logs, paper, timber, lumber, aggregate and power.
The local mill, which employed almost 3,000 at its peak, now has less than 15 per cent of that work force. But the population of Powell River remains about the same. The city of about 21,000 has morphed into a popular retirement community in the past decade, with seniors making up more than 20 per cent of the population.
Seniors who came to Powell River, partly because it was affordable, say recent ferry fare hikes have discouraged relatives from visiting on weekends. Tourism and local business have also felt the impact. "The rates are killing us … we need recognition from government that ferries are part of the highway system. I just want to hear them say, 'Yes, it is your highway,' " Mr. Formosa said.
The same message is echoed in numerous interviews with ferry users on Route 18, running between the Westview port at Powell River and Blubber Bay on Texada Island.
Rob Cecconi and Drew Bartfai are on their way to work on Texada Island. Unlike other nearby islands, Texada is an industrial island with limestone quarries. Several people from Powell River take the 35-minute ferry ride every day to work on Texada, spending around $3,000 a year on fares. Around 750 people live on the island.
"The waterways are our highways," said Mr. Cecconi, interrupting the conversation to watch whales gracefully breach out of the water. "That's how people travel, get to work, go to the hospital, go to sport events."
He, like others, questions why ferries are not treated like part of the highway system. The government spends heavily on highway maintenance, bridges, overpasses and new blacktop without expecting any financial return, he said.
The government built the island highway from Victoria to Campbell River and the sea-to-sky highway to Whistler without collecting tolls. Former premier Gordon Campbell bulldozed the toll booth on the Coquihalla Highway four years ago, eliminating a $10 toll. Most recently, Premier Christy Clark announced another $700-million over five years for new road and rail projects.
Dan Devita, who runs the Texada Island Inn, says people looked for ways to avoid the cost as fares rise. Commercial deliveries for some businesses on the island have been cancelled or frequency has been reduced. Local residents go on bigger shopping sprees whenever they are off the island. Many arrange for alternate means of transportation in Powell River and on the island, so they do not have to take their vehicle on the ferry.
Scott Randolph, manager of the regional economic development society in Power River, says the ferry system should not be expected to be a profit-generating corporation.
"You can run it like a business, but at the end of the day, [BC Ferries Corp.]is not a business," he said.