British Columbia's transportation minister is promising to hold BC Ferries rate increases to the level of inflation starting in 2016 – the best deal he can offer coastal communities outraged over fares and service cuts.
Canada's inflation rate was 2.1 per cent, according to figures released earlier this month. Fare hikes on BC Ferries have been limited to about 4 per cent since 2012, with the next hike set for 2015.
"I think we can get there, but it's going to require being creative and require coastal communities and leaders in coastal communities be willing to say yest to a variety of different ideas," Todd Stone said Wednesday.
The transportation minister's comments came after a showdown on the issue behind closed doors at the annual convention of the Union of B.C. Municipalities as Mr. Stone, jobs minister Shirley Bond and Premier Christy Clark met with coastal leaders.
Ms. Clark committed to meeting with the leaders in November to continue talking about the issue around BC Ferries, an independent company with a contract with the B.C. government, which provides funding for its services.
Earlier Wednesday, hundreds of UBCM delegates voted for a resolution seeking a four per cent cut in ferry rates, increased funding for the service that links coastal communities and the mainland and treating the service as an extension of the highway system.
Earlier this month, the UBCM released a study that suggests fare increases at BC Ferries over the last decade have driven down ridership and reduced the province's GDP by $2.3 billion. Had fare increases from 2003 to 2013 been limited to the inflation rate, passenger volumes would have increased by 19 per cent, but overall ridership, instead, fell 11 per cent.
Mr. Stone told reporters all of the UBCM proposals were non starters, suggesting they would lead to tax hikes at odds with government policy.
"We don't believe the answer to the sustainability challenge of BC Ferries is to simply have the government, on behalf of the taxpayers of the province, write a bigger cheque," Mr. Stone said after the meeting.
Instead, he called for innovation such as a newly announced study of a fixed link between Vancouver Island and Gabriola Island 3.7 nautical miles away, and converting the services two largest ferries to using liquefied natural gas for propulsion – a plan that would save $9 million per year.
"Coastal communities and their leaders are going to have to work with us to embrace a number of other ideas which could include alternative technologies, fixed links, alternative fuels, passenger-only ferries in compliment to vehicle ferries – a wide range of ideas we've thrown out there. Some of these ideas will work. Some of them won't."
The government has cut services on underutilized routes and enacted other measures to save $54 million each year.
Coastal leaders emerged from the talks with the province with a mix of views – hope at the November talks with Ms. Clark and exasperation at a lack of movement on their concerns.
"A year ago, we heard the very same thing from the premier and the transportation minister. They said they needed the best and the brightest ideas from coastal communities on how to make ferries sustainable," Sheila Malcomson, a Gabriola Island Local Trustee told reporters after the meeting.
"And then they went out and announced cuts and fare hikes to our communities. It didn't feel like consultation then. And they said the same things again today," she said. "It doesn't feel like we're any further ahead."
But she said coastal communities need to keep having the conversation with the government.
Colin Palmer, board chair for the Powell River Regional District, said it was notable that Ms. Clark was, at least, willing to meet to keep talking about coastal concerns on ferries. "It's more significant than last year," he said. "I think it's important."
Claire Trevena, the NDP ferries critic, said she heard nothing reassuring in Mr. Stone's comments. "I think his response is extraordinarily weak," she said, calling for more assertive efforts to ease the impacts of the status quo on ferry rates.