Put ferries on same footing as highways

Chagrined by contemptible ferry fare increases, the Gulf Islands Alliance says islanders want ferries put back on the same footing as highways, a part of BC’s integrated public transportation infrastructure and marine highway.

Part of GIA’s quest is “to keep our rural communities economically vibrant, resident-based, diverse and affordable.”

GIA believes ferries ownership/management must be a public policy function of elected provincial representatives, not a business run by a poorly-understood semi-public corporation. Many islanders reject the criticism that they chose to live on the islands as if they knowingly ‘gambled their futures’ on an unreliable ferry system.

The government must be committed long term to maintaining ferries with affordable fares and adequate service.

Many ideas to improve efficiencies and return the government to total accountability have been offered by ferry users in a recent round of public consultation.  Variously criticized as a public relations exercise, manipulative, and a complete waste of time and tax dollars ($700,000), the consultation increased cynicism among some islanders. It’s telling that the consultants didn’t list an increase in provincial ferry contributions as an option for public consideration. Further, lack of information about economic and other impacts of possible service and fare adjustments, and suggested options such bridge construction, particularly for Gabriola Island, and financing ferries with property and fuel taxes have been a distraction from the central question: How and when will the provincial government, as a matter of public policy, undertake sole responsibility for the secure management and sustainability of ferries?

This objective would officially commit the province to recognize ferries as the lifeline carrying almost 9 million vehicles and 20 million passengers annually to communities along BC’s 27,000 kilometres of coastline. Recognizing that a gold-plated transportation service can over-stimulate growth and tourism, with attendant impacts on fragile island environments, GIA is looking only for long-term security and fairness in ferry service. It’s a service now strained by declining ridership and prepaid fare rates that have more than doubled in the last nine years and are set to rise another 12 percent in the next two years. Public ferries must be treated as infrastructure and not continue to be unfairly associated with ‘significant losses’, ‘subsidies’ and ‘shortfalls.’ To soothe its critics, it should be widely announced that ferries receive 85 percent of operating revenues from fares, compared to public transit that gets only 35 per cent from users, the rest coming from government.

The ferries’ decade-long move towards a user-pay model is largely responsible for the unconscionable fare increases that have wrought economic distress and reduced populations on some islands. Real estate values have dropped by up to 33 percent in the last five years. While GIA supports a closer look at near-empty ferry runs and eliminating other inefficiencies, user-pay must be scrapped. GIA agrees with Ferry Advisory Committee recommendations to roll back fares by 25 per cent on smaller routes and peg future fare increases to inflation.